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CEPEDA: Awareness bracelet sends wrong message

Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda

CHICAGO -- "Boobs."

I hate that word. Why women, of all people, would use such a disrespectful term -- a boy's locker room word -- to describe one of their own body parts has always been a mystery to me. More obvious is that the term has no place in classrooms.

I'm referring to the Keep a Breast Foundation's awareness campaign to "eradicate breast cancer by exposing young people to methods of prevention, early detection and support." It purports to do so by sparking conversations through their controversial "I (heart) Boobies!" bracelets and T-shirts.

The foundation's website says it wants to reach the "younger generation" by formulating cutting-edge campaigns employing art and artistic expression to spread information about methods of prevention, early detection, coping and support.

But I'd say its most remarkable achievement has been to become the bane of school teachers and administrators across the country.

Earlier this month, two Easton, Pa., middle school girls won a ruling from a federal judge overturning a ban on the bracelets that got them suspended from school. The two had worn the bracelets on Breast Cancer Awareness Day, which I assume had been set aside by the school for thoughtful conversations about cancer prevention and not to give packs of budding teen boys and girls something to giggle about.

Believe me -- at middle and high schools, every day brings about a million innocent opportunities for whole classrooms of hormone-inebriated students to completely disintegrate at the mention of any given fact. Just try discussing the sub-basins of Lake Titicaca during a unit on the Andean region of South America with students of any age.

Following the Pennsylvania judgment -- after the Easton Area School Board voted to try to convince the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the ban was justified -- middle schools in Massachusetts and Oregon, and a high school in Colorado, announced similar bans on the same bracelets.

In Canon City, Colo., administrators swapped the offending bracelet for one that simply says "End Breast Cancer." The Watertown, Mass., assistant principal called the bracelets "frivolous" and "too provocative," while the Silverton, Ore., superintendent told a reporter that some students may have difficulty separating the slang word for breasts from the message about breast cancer.

That's it in a nutshell. These bracelets don't raise awareness of breast cancer among students as much as they create a distraction rooted in an intentionally sexually provocative statement. And such a distraction sends the clear message that this is an acceptable term to use in reference to a woman's body part and that it's OK to banter about it with classmates.

It's not. Schools across the country regularly conduct age-appropriate sexual harassment training for students that include examples of types of unacceptable behaviors. Students are also instructed in ways to oppose harassment and how to get help if they are a witness or a victim.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights sent out a 10-page "Dear Colleague" letter last October issuing detailed guidance to educational institutions from kindergarten to college clarifying their legal responsibilities in preventing the violations of the federal anti-discrimination law that are cited in bullying and harassment cases.

Still, it's useless to fault the Keep a Breast Foundation for using an eye-catching gimmick to get the message out even if it is demeaning to women -- that cat's way out of the bag.

As the writer Peggy Orenstein brilliantly laid out last November in a New York Times Magazine essay titled "Think About Pink," sex is increasingly and successfully being used to sell breast cancer awareness and "destigmatization." She describes how women are degraded by sexualizing cancer in the name of informing the public. This might be worth discussing with students -- but not spontaneously during algebra because of a student's jewelry.

Let's applaud the schools that are prohibiting these tasteless bracelets and hope cooler heads prevail so the current ruling doesn't encourage lawsuits against them -- or dissuade other school administrators from doing whatever is necessary to keep this potentially explosive distraction out of their classrooms.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at ejc@estherjcepeda.com.