Last week, in a middle school just outside Baltimore, a 13-year-old boy grabbed a 14-year-old girl by the shirt, pulled her to his face, and stuck his tongue inside her mouth. Police arrested the boy and charged him as a juvenile with second-degree assault.
Both online and in man-on-the-street interviews for local news, people have questioned the charge’s legitimacy. “I don’t know if an unwanted kiss is a second-degree assault of a person,” one woman said. But according to Maryland’s criminal code—which prohibits any unwanted, potentially injurious contact, whether or not it actually results in physical harm—it is.
Reason, which illustrated its dismissive post with a stock photo of children many years younger than the teen in question, chalked it up to boys being boys:
Thirteen-year-olds do stupid stuff. They screw up. And when the consequences of their actions are as minor as this, it’s better to reprimand them in a manner that does not involve the criminal justice system. By all means, give this kid detention. Make him apologize to the girl. Tell his parents to teach him better manners. But don’t charge him with assault. That would be a far greater crime than a stolen kiss.
Consequences take many forms. For some teens, a punch to the eye or mouth might be less traumatic than a forced tongue in the mouth. Treating this boy’s invasion of personal space and bodily autonomy as less serious than any other assault would teach him and his peers that there’s a hierarchy of violence, and unwanted physical or sexual contact ranks low on the scale of severity.
Every account of the arrest I could find included what would appear to be a mitigating caveat: The boy kissed the girl on a dare. Besides the fact that blaming misbehavior on peer pressure is the oldest strategy in any middle-schooler’s survival guide, the framing of this assault as a dare distorts it into an accident of child’s play—one where every party is in on the game. It’s true that our country’s juvenile justice system is a tragic mess, but a misdemeanor second-degree assault charge isn’t likely to land this kid any jail time. An uneven application of the assault code could do far more harm in the long run.