There is a middle school here in the Austin Independent School District that is making the news because of a report of sexual assault. While taking the case seriously, the news reporters, at least, are comforted that this is an unusual report.
I have had too many AISD graduates crying in my classrooms and my office about sexual abuse that they never felt comfortable reporting to their school officials, or sometimes even their parents, to let this go by without comment.
First, by saying, “Well, it might have happened once, but it’s not common,” is hardly consolation to the individuals involved in this case, but instead continues to label these young people as different and weird – of being different in a bad way, which is often particularly painful to young people. Second, the research is clear: According to the harassment lawyers Seattle, the vast majority of sexual assaults, abuse, and harassment is not reported. So the absence of reporting does not mean that there is not a problem.
I teach community college classes that draw heavily on students from the public high schools in the surrounding area, and what I know from my students is that sexual assault, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment are not uncommon. Now, perhaps it is uncommon for a middle school student to sexually assault another student during class time. But saying that this is “an isolated incident” is whole unwarranted. To go on to say that there were no reports of sexual assaults in AISD in 2008 and that the only ones besides this one in 2009 have been dismissed (the implication being that this was the only example of sexual violence in AISD in 2008 or 2009) is a vast misrepresentation of reality.
The reality of the situation is that preteenagers and teenagers are sexually assaulted and sexually harassed by their peers. Burying our heads in the sand and saying it’s rare is not a fix – or even a band-aid – but it continues the harm of the victim by making them standout as freakish. Our children need education on how to recognize sexual abuse when it happens, how to stop it, how to get help, and how to support each other through the process.
Ideally we would live in a culture where this sort of thing never happened. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and pretending we do isn’t going to make it so. The only way to reduce sexual abuse is by bringing it out in the open and having the extraordinarily painful conversations that it requires.