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Yesterday, a local parent called me, distraught.

This person’s daughter is one of more than 30 students suspended from Scripps Ranch High School last week over that now infamous twerking video, where the group of mostly girls jerks and shakes on camera for what many originally thought was a class multi-media project.

The video, and news of the participants’ suspensions for lewd conduct and sexual harassment, have gone viral, sparking national outrage over the seemingly too-harsh punishment. The students were suspended for two days, and because of school policies, “some of those suspended are also banned from attending prom or walking at graduation,” according to NBC 7 San Diego.

School administrators seem especially upset that the video was shot on school property, using school equipment, but those issues don’t factor into the official punishment. Both the school principal and San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Bill Kowba have zeroed in on the “offensive” and “lewd” nature of the video as the reason for the punishment.

But the real outrage here isn’t quite that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime (though that’s absurd too, since it’s hard to figure out exactly how the video even constitutes a crime). It’s that administrators have perverted the definition of “sexual harassment” and wielded it against the very people those types of provisions are meant to protect. Of those suspended, 28 were girls and three were boys (Or, as Kowba creepily refers to them in a memo, “28 white females and 3 male students of color.”)

The parent I spoke with (who requested anonymity because the family still worries about retribution from administrators) was disturbed by Kowba’s description:

Why didn’t he say, “16 brunettes and 12 blondes”? …

I cannot accept the answer, or its implication: Permission to broad-brush my daughter’s 1.4 second twerk attempt into being deemed “severely sexual,” the threshold for suspension for sexual harassment.

Kowba’s bizarre decision to bring race into the equation recalls some pretty antiquated notions of racial and gender norms. Are we supposed to be more disturbed by the video because it was produced by three black students?

All of the district’s policies on sexually harassing conduct — as well as the Title IX provisions that involve sexual harassment — seem to imply that any offending incident has to involve a victim — someone on the receiving end of “mean unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature, made by someone from or in the educational setting.”

Since the video isn’t directed at anyone in particular, nor was it filmed in front of others where it might disrupt or offend other students, it’s hard to say who that victim actually is, except maybe Kowba himself, who said he finds the video deeply offensive.

Brandishing sexual harassment charges for dance moves also sets a dangerous precedent. Say what you will about these students’ dance skills, but the sharp, aggressive movements show a group of girls in control of their own bodies.

If Kowba chooses to see something “sexually suggestive” in those movements, perhaps we should be turning to him to find fault.

In an email to Kowba and school administrators that I obtained, one parent argues: “These videos celebrate the beauty of positive, creative and expressive Multi Media collaboration, often including jerking, twerking, grinding, ‘Gangnam Style’ dancing and ‘dougie’-ing.”

Turning those moves around on the girls, and using them as the catalyst for a punishment that could haunt their futures, suggests that the girls themselves should bear the burden of a society that seeks to sexualize and objectify them at every turn.

Now the group’s fate might rest with the school board, whose members (four men, one woman) will consider the suspension in a closed meeting next Tuesday. (Trustee Scott Barnett has already expressed wariness over the punishment.)

The group’s suspension last week closely coincided with another big story on student misconduct: an undercover drug probe at several local high schools that ultimately led to 19 people being charged.

When held up next to each other, it’s pretty laughable that the school and the district is bending over backward to find fault with a crude but ultimately harmless video. There are real dangers lurking in schools — say, the easy availability of drugs — but jerking and ass-shaking isn’t one of them.

Update: The school board originally planned to discuss the suspensions this week, but will now consider the issue in a closed session next week.

Sara Libby is VOSD’s managing editor. She oversees VOSD’s newsroom and its content. You can reach her at sara.libby@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0526.

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Sara Libby

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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