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.
I was sexually harassed in middle school, by a guy in my class persistently speaking about me in very sexual and inappropriate ways. I was so distressed that I did report it, but when the administers wanted to do something about it, I fell apart.
I begged them not to tell my mother, and not to make a fuss about it because I didn’t want anyone to know what he had said. I felt like i had done something wrong, to attract his attention. Mostly, I just felt shamed and horrible about the whole thing.
To give the administrators credit, they did make the guy apologize to me, and kept a real close eye on him. I think if I had been willing to talk about it, they would have gotten the guy suspended, or even kicked out of school.
But, I was 13, and barely knew what sex was, let alone how to handle this kind of situation. I everything I had ever heard make me think i would be perceived as a bad person for being spoken of this way, or for reporting it. In retrospect, the fact that I even reported it was pretty brave of me.
I’m not sure what the solution is, but I’m pretty sure you are spot on when you say that pretending this is an isolated thing is not helpful.
Shadowedge, I am so sorry to hear about what happened to you in MS, but glad to hear that the administration responded in a way that you felt was supportive of what you wanted to happen.
I would like to have heard that they had sat you down and this boy down (separately, of course), and talked about sexual harassment. For you: that it wasn’t your fault, that it’s not uncommon, that he needs to learn how to interact more effectively with his peers, that nothing you had done could have instigated him talking to you in that way, that you weren’t a bad person or to blame in any way. I wish they had talked with him about how to think about his own desires and feelings in a deeper way, how to approach other people more effectively, how to asses whether comments or approaches are welcome or unwelcome, how unwelcome comments (especially sexual comments) make other people feel, why that is inappropriate, and some common rules of thumb about how to approach and talk with other people. In short, apologizing simply isn’t enough. A deep and thoughtful education is sorely needed for all students – but it is particularly demanded these cases where an individual has shown a propensity towards inappropriate conduct.
When I was in high school we went on a school canoe trip (1978 – i was 13). It was a Catholic High School – they are publicly funded in my part of Canada. One of the male teachers tried to molest me. He did molest/get with one of the boys (age 14). He also sold drugs to a bunch of the students.
He was allowed to resign, and the students that complained were threatened with expulsion if they talked.
I did not report my incident until after the fact (canoe trip in late June, didn’t know about the rest of the stuff until fall – then reported). I was too embarrassed. The response from the principal was that the teacher was gone now and the situation was dealt with.
The children involved – especially the boy who was the “most special student…” – were not given counseling or support.
In Grade 12 I heard hallway gossip about one of the Priests who was also a teacher looking down girls tops, and touching them on the thighs, breasts, behinds, and waists. In discussion with my female cousin who attended the same school I had the reports confirmed.
I was in the principal’s office for other matters (I was on the SRC), I mentioned the rumours and suggested that he might want to check things out because they were circulating, and I thought he should know – he was the principal, after all. I stressed several times that I was not reporting it personally, and that I was only reporting the rumours, and that he would need to independently verify the situation.
When I arrived home from school that day my mother asked me what the hell i was doing. She had received a call from the school with the principal and superintendent on speakerphone threatening to kick me out of school for reporting the rumours. My family has been in politics for generations and my mom had the fortitude and wherewithal to tell them to get stuffed. That if they tried it, they’d be talking to our lawyer and some reporters. Mom then admonished me – not for reporting the incident – but for not telling my parents in advance so they could back me up better.
The Priest suddenly retired at the end of that school year (3 months later).
My sister, some 4 years prior (1974) had been fondled/touched by one of the teachers at the school. My father went to the teacher and put him against a wall and threatened to kill him. It was 1974 after all, and things were a little different then.
The school did nothing.
In a moment of Karma, the teacher – whom it was later discovered had molested a bunch of girls over the years – a couple of years later was trapped in a burning shed/granary and suffered 3rd degree burns to his whole body.
Cosmic justice, I imagine.
Cadbury, I am so very sorry that these things happened to you and your sister and all of these other young men and women. It is a vast disservice to each of these young souls. The pain that is caused when adults misuse power, have inappropriate sexual contact with young people, and otherwise cause (or cover up) such deep and long-lasting rifts within the self is dramatic and for far too many remains hidden throughout their lives.
Nevertheless, and I think I have talked about this before, but I cannot take the time to sift through my archives to find it, the adults who do these things do them out of a deeply seeded hurt within themselves. Their cosmic justice begins with living with themselves. No human can cause such pain in others and walk away untouched. While they might not be able to consciously articulate feeling that they are in pain, there is a dissociation that begins when we cause pain to our fellow humans to claim their decisions as their own in order to feel more powerful – and particularly when someone does this to children – they have drawn a line in the sand, with themselves on the other side of love and understanding and the true sense of peace and comfort that comes with these feelings.
So while I deeply understand your desire for more clear cut, observable punishment like the one you described, I am not at all sure that physical punishment is the answer for such a twisted psyche. Instead, I would rather see them do the deep, inward work that is so hard, and come truly face-to-face with their actions and begin to understand the ramifications on others. I would rather see a true sense of empathy awakened in them so that they can begin to imagine what it must have been like for the people who they hurt so deeply – and so they can begin to imagine what it is still like for those people every single day. This kind of change is, of course, much harder to measure and to see. But it would be far more profoundly life-changing and probably far more painful, although at a very different level.
[…] of reporting was recognized, policy and media coverage would have to change. In this blog post by Dr. Karen Rayne, she discusses the media reporting of a student on student sexual assault at a middle school in […]
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