How Schools Breed Silence About Sexual Harassment and Abuse

Of all the strange news organizations to do such a thing, the AP did some investigative reporting (that took seven months!) into sexual harassment and abuse in U.S. schools. Even stranger, the article is pretty good. Though I wish that it had included more data about reports of sexual misconduct across racial, class and regional lines, not to mention age groups of students, it is otherwise fairly comprehensive.

There is a lot to pick out and discuss in this article. You really ought to read the whole thing. For example, Broadsheet focused on the issue of disparity between how male and female victims are perceived by the public. What most struck me, though, was the way that schools routinely ignore harassment, abuse and allegations of sexual misconduct.

Beyond the horror of individual crimes, the larger shame is that the institutions that govern education have only sporadically addressed a problem that’s been apparent for years.

“From my own experience — this could get me in trouble — I think every single school district in the nation has at least one perpetrator. At least one,” says Mary Jo McGrath, a California lawyer who has spent 30 years investigating abuse and misconduct in schools. “It doesn’t matter if it’s urban or rural or suburban.”

One report mandated by Congress estimated that as many as 4.5 million students, out of roughly 50 million in American schools, are subject to sexual misconduct by an employee of a school sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade. That figure includes verbal harassment that’s sexual in nature. . . .

The AP investigation found efforts to stop individual offenders but, overall, a deeply entrenched resistance toward recognizing and fighting abuse. It starts in school hallways, where fellow teachers look away or feel powerless to help. School administrators make behind-the-scenes deals to avoid lawsuits and other trouble. And in state capitals and Congress, lawmakers shy from tough state punishments or any cohesive national policy for fear of disparaging a vital profession.

That only enables rogue teachers, and puts kids who aren’t likely to be believed in a tough spot.

In case after case the AP examined, accusations of inappropriate behavior were dismissed. One girl in Mansfield, Ohio, complained about a sexual assault by teacher Donald Coots and got expelled. It was only when a second girl, years later, brought a similar complaint against the same teacher that he was punished.

And that second girl also was ostracized by the school community and ultimately left town.

Unless there’s a videotape of a teacher involved with a child, everyone wants to believe the authority figure, says Wayne Promisel, a retired Virginia detective who has investigated many sex abuse cases. . . .

School officials fear public embarrassment as much as the perpetrators do, Shakeshaft says. They want to avoid the fallout from going up against a popular teacher. They also don’t want to get sued by teachers or victims, and they don’t want to face a challenge from a strong union.

Clearly, this is frightening. And what frightened me the most, I think, is that I know it’s true because I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. I’m sure that many of you have, too. I don’t usually go into personal anecdotes in my posts, but this article really does bring a story to mind, which I will share after the jump.

When I was in eight grade, a new English teacher came to my junior high. I’ll call him Mr. C. At first, some of the girls thought he was good looking. Then we started finding him kind of obnoxious and a little weird. Then the harassment started.

It was mostly directed at one girl in particular, who I’ll call Julie (we were only acquaintances). She was pretty, and yes, she did have very large breasts. He would frequently comment on her physical appearance. Things like “you look really nice today.” We wore uniforms at the school, so we knew that he wasn’t complimenting her clothes. But once, when we were having a dress-down day, he did comment actually on her clothes. He felt the need to say “wow, Julie, that shirt looks really great on you!” The shirt in question was a plain black, tight t-shirt. No cool design to admire.  He said it while staring at her breasts.

There were other weird things. He would often ask female students to stay back after class so that he could “talk” to them, but wouldn’t have anything that he needed to talk to them about. He stroked another girl’s hair (she froze and didn’t know how to stop him). He would make inappropriate jokes, and though I don’t remember any of them now, I do remember that I didn’t “get” a lot of them until a couple of years later. For those of you who have ever worn uniforms to school, you know that the girls like to roll up their skirts and undo an extra button on their shirt the minute they get out of their parent’s sight. We started doing that button back up and rolling our skirts back down for English class. Eventually girls started refusing to stay after class, and Mr. C went into some self-important thing about how he was the authority figure and that they had to do what he said.

That was when they finally decided to go report it to the principal. None of this was a secret; everyone was aware that Mr. C was a creepy man who made all of the girls uncomfortable. Lots of us had to talk to the harassed girls for weeks to get them to report it, convincing them that yes, it is a big deal.

So Julie, the girl whose hair Mr. C stroked and another girl who had been getting similar treatment went down to the office. They were scared and embarrassed and told him what was going on.

The principal’s response? That Mr. C was a “new teacher” who was just trying to be “friendly.” He’s still “learning the ropes” and “getting comfortable” so he’s a little “awkward,” but really very “nice” and none of us had anything to “worry” about.

The principal did talk to Mr. C, though. We knew that because he became hostile, particularly toward Julie. But his harassment didn’t stop. In fact, he made it more public, by doing it loudly and in front of the class so that we would know that he’s “joking” and would always make sure to follow his inappropriate comments with “you know that I’m joking, right?”

We tried to encourage Julie to go back to the principal. She refused. I, along with a few other girls, offered to go for her, and she got angry and refused that offer, too. We didn’t have our own harassment cases to report, and didn’t know what to do.

If I remember correctly, a few parents eventually (a few months after it all began) got wind of Mr. C’s behavior and complained to the school themselves. We got a letter vague that refused to name any names about “concerns” over behavior, and said some crap about how they were being taken seriously, safety was their number one concern, blah blah blah. Mr. C was obviously reprimanded, because he mostly stopped with the overt harassment and comments. But he still leered.

The thing that I remember most vividly, though, was not the harassment itself but our teachers’ reactions to it. My favorite female teacher, who was beloved by most of my friends and we were close with, started dating Mr. C. It not only creeped us out, but made us feel betrayed. Then there was my favorite male teacher, Mr T. I was close to him, too, and when a group of us were hanging out with him on a 3 day trip to D.C., I said something about Mr. C. At that age (and still sometimes now . . .) I had a way of saying inappropriate things to inappropriate people without realizing until too late that they were inappropriate. So I made an offhand comment to about Mr. C, and Mr. T got upset and insisted that I elaborate. I said “well, you know, I thought everybody knew . . .” and Mr. T went into the same exact defense of Mr. C that the principal had. The man is “awkward” and “uncomfortable,” just “trying to be nice,” we should “cut him a break” and not “spread rumors” like that.  It felt like a punch in the gut. Mr. T was my all-time favorite teacher — probably, honestly still is when I look back at my K-12 experience.  He was an excellent teacher, fun to be around, and I still credit him with initially sparking my interest in social and political issues (which are obviously still areas dear to my heart).  I admired and respected him and I thought that he respected me. I think that it was a sad, subconscious first lesson that expecting male authority figures to stand up for you against other male authority figures is a losing endeavor.

So, my point? That this isn’t anything new. In fact, it’s probably very, very old. Obviously there are excellent, responsible teachers, principals and school administrations out there.  I know some of them personally, and I’m in no way trying to indict them all.  But they can’t be everywhere at once.  And when Julie and the rest of us needed them, they weren’t there.  This story is also a mild one, since, to the best of my knowledge, Mr. C did not commit an actual sexual assault against any of his students (while I still went to school there, anyway). So the stories get a hell of a lot worse.

I think that now would be a good time to share those stories, for those of you who feel comfortable in doing so, and to discuss what the hell we can do to force school authorities to take allegations of sexual harassment and assault seriously. How do we make sure that the Julies (and Julians) in our lives are protected?

0 thoughts on “How Schools Breed Silence About Sexual Harassment and Abuse

  1. corey

    Ugh. My sister is a gym/health teacher in an eastern PA high school. She has has numerous experiences with an administrator whose behavior is most clearly sexual harassment. She has heard disclosures from female teachers as well as female students. And the response she has received from the administrator’s supervisors have been just as horrifying as the harassing behavior. Completely minimizing his comments and advances as marks of a “friendly guy” and sweeping it under the rug. I am sure that it won’t be too much longer until his behavior crosses the line from harassment into assault. It is SO frustrating. I can’t understand how it’s allowed to continue. I guess it’s a combination on the administration’s part of ignorance, misogyny, and the fear of a lawsuit by a disciplined sexual harassing faculty member over that of a victim of sexual harasssment.


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