Last week I woke to another benign, milquetoast face that flashed online under a headline of atrocious criminal accusation: a man given trust or respect he may not have deserved was accused of sexual misconduct. With minors.
And this was so close to us. A male teacher was arrested for alleged sexual misconduct with one of his fifth grade students at my son’s public elementary school. This, after the exceptionally brave child revealed the teacher’s breach of her safety, her right to her body’s privacy, and more.
A second allegation of his abuse against another child resulted in his bail being denied. You could almost hear the collective sighs of relief, except they were quickly squelched beneath the ripples of outrage.
The school has erupted, as can be expected, with a wild range of emotion. “I just want to homeschool my son and never let him out of sight,” a fellow mother of a first-grader said to me at pick-up. “My daughter liked him,” said a mom with evident disgust, her daughter one of his students. “How do I explain to her what he’s done?” And, of course, the much more emotionally weighted, “How could he?”—a constant echo around the campus.
In these kinds of situations, we all want someone to blame. How could he have engaged in this crime during school time, in daylight hours? How can parents trust that their children will be safe? What will the administration do about it?
I’m not concerned with the deeper why he did it. I’m married to a psychologist, and am sister-in-law to two sheriff’s deputies — I know too much about the wretched mix of crappy life experience and faulty wiring that drives abusers to their dark acts. No answer would suffice. I believe that some souls are corrupt beyond redemption. I want to see him prosecuted, incarcerated and forgotten about forever more.
What I’m truly concerned about is how an abuser’s crime does not just affect the child and his or her family; it affects the entire community. It has a powerful, deadly ripple effect of fear and horror that quickly turns to rage and trauma. Though this teacher’s victims comprise two that we know of, the entire class of children is now languishing in confusion.
For one of my friends, whose son was in his class, it poses a terrible dilemma; she has not yet had “the sex talk” with her 10-year-old boy. There is no way she plans to link the act of sex or intimacy with the revelation of an abuser’s crime against a child in his mind. So what to tell him? What does any parent tell a child of such actions? She opted to tell him that the girl was “bullied” by the teacher.
Fellow teachers suffer the anguish of betrayal, the corrosion of doubt too. “I would never have guessed it of him,” one teacher told me. My son’s first-grade teacher admitted that it has created a kind of apprehension in the remaining staff. A formerly benign pat on the shoulder is now suspect. Can a hurt and crying child be comforted with a hug?
This paranoia is especially painful to me, a volunteer in a program at the school called Project Cornerstone, developed by the YMCA, which teaches children to be “Upstanders,” who learn to “make good decisions, show respect and act responsibly.” It teaches the children to identify and believe that there are, “caring adults” in the school and the community who they can turn to in just such terrible times. Moments like this test the mettle of our convictions; the teachers and parents on campus are the very people we point the children toward when they feel scared, unsure or in need of help.
Even as I despair, even as I hold my 6-year-old son closer and emphasize more firmly to him that a caring adult would never harm him or ask him to keep a secret, I am comforted by one fact alone: the victim was able to access her voice, and reveal her abuser’s crime because her class was having a discussion about bullying behavior, because ours is a school, thanks in part to Project Cornerstone, that has cultivated an open dialogue on this and other topics.
What a school can’t do in the aftermath of such a tragedy: restore trust instantly, assure parents that nothing like this will ever happen again, or go back to things as they were.
What can be done: We parents can avoid knee-jerk reactions; one man’s crime doesn’t indict all other male teachers. One school’s tragedy doesn’t make the school itself a bad or unsafe place. Administration can create a culture of open communication between parents and staff, reducing the “us vs. them” nature of the beast.
Most of all, we adults can try and use it as an opportunity to come closer to one another, to trust our hunches and intuitions, to speak our fears and our concerns clearly, to teach our children to speak theirs.
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