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Dear Landon School: Decorum Is Not the Same as Honor

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Do not be fooled by student codes of conduct. They're more about decorum than desire, or cheating on tests rather than cheating on your girlfriend.

Which means the age-old assumption, "Boys will be boys" is alive and well, and girls are still, as Maureen Dowd put it, prey.

We were reminded of this in news stories by Dowd and others that surfaced this week about Landon School, an all-boys private school in Bethesda, Md., a Washington, D.C. suburb. Last summer, a group of incoming freshmen boys organized a fantasy league composed of names of girls from other private schools. According to a story in the Washington Post, the boys decided to throw several parties during the summer and assign points to each girl based on how many sexual encounters they had with her. They also agreed to exchange money at summer's end, according to Dowd in the New York Times.

Their plot was killed prior to the first party when the mother of one of the girls discovered the rosters on a Web site and called the school.

What was the school administration's response? To tell the three boys whose names appeared on the site that once school started, they would be sent to three days of in-school suspension.

Which means the boys were probably spending most of their time passing notes to each other in the cafeteria and drawing cartoons in their spiral notebooks. That'll certainly teach them.

Landon's communications director Jean Erstling told Dowd that "Landon has an extensive ethics and character education program which includes as its key tenets respect and honesty. Civility toward women is definitely part of that education program."

Good to know.

But then consider the Landon Web site that touts the Landon Civility Code: Boys are expected to "respect one another and our surroundings in our decorum, appearance and interactions."

Sounds like making a good impression is more important than having a good heart.

I talked to two nationally known professionals who have worked with schools for years on issues of sexuality, sexual violence and gender. Neither was surprised by what happened at Landon; they've seen similar occurrences at other schools. It's hard enough to convince schools to teach about the biology of sex, let alone sexual relationships, they said.

"Schools are very selective in teaching what it means to be honorable men, said Deborah Roffman, a sex educator and school consultant for 40 years. "They apply values here, and there, but not necessarily to sex and girls."

As a result, said Brad Perry, an expert in sexual violence, boys grow up with rigid, outdated notions of masculinity. One of these, he said, is the idea of the battle of the sexes. As boys move into adolescence, they start seeing girls not as friends but adversaries, and they "win" the battle by becoming players and heartbreakers.

"Many (boys) are not comfortable with those ideas," he told me, "but they're not able to step outside the box for fear of being ridiculed."

Landon's reaction to the fantasy sex league reminded me of a story I wrote for the Washington Post about students at a middle school in Arlington, Va.

Several eighth-grade boys put together an informal oral sex group. They'd assemble in parks and each other's homes to receive oral sex from female classmates.

When the school's guidance counselor heard about this from a student, she alerted the principal, who called a meeting of the girls' parents but not the parents of the boys. When I talked to two of the boys, they said neither they nor their parents were ever contacted by the school.

"Our girls were portrayed as the bad girls," the mother of one of the girls told me at the time. "Where were the bad boys?"

That story appeared 11 years ago.

"Sexism is relatively invisible to our society," Roffman said in response to the Landon story. "What's it going to take? If marketing pimp costumes to 5-year-olds at Halloween doesn't make us sit up and take notice, what will?

"The girls on the Landon teams were being treated like objects. What we need more than anything is make sure boys get this: You don't leave values at home or school, you take them with you on the weekend as well.

This is not just Landon school. It could be anywhere."

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