James West, school dean for a prominent Roman Catholic high school for boys, has been suspended due to allegations that he sexually assaulted one of the students in his office. As far as this news story reports, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe that the allegations are not credible and do not deserve to be taken seriously. In fact, West has been criminally charged with forcible touching and sexual abuse in the third degree.
But of course, that isn’t stopping everyone from rushing to the dean’s defense and claiming that he could certainly never do something like that.
Among students and alumni, the arrest last week of Mr. West, 55, was met with disbelief and a chorus of support for the dean, who was also chairman of the math department and a Hayes graduate himself, class of 1972. His arrest was reported on Friday in New York newspapers.
“All he ever cared about was our learning and safety. He was real strict but cool,” Eric Hall, 14, a freshman, said Friday. “I really don’t think it’s fair to him that this happened.”
A sophomore, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because school authorities had told students not to speak to reporters about Mr. West’s arrest, said: “All I know is, the principal told us some kid lied about Dean West touching him. Dean West ain’t that type of guy.”
I want to make it clear that these kids are young, and so I hold no personal animosity towards them or the fact that they made these comments. In fact, I think that choosing to interview them, even anonymously, when alumni are also allegedly rushing to West’s defense, could be considered quite exploitative of these teenagers.
But that doesn’t stop me from being concerned about their comments. It is, in fact, their age that tends to concern me most.
On the one hand, we can hope that they’ll outgrow the view that “I like him, so he couldn’t have done this bad thing” — but of course we know that far too many adults also hold the same one. After all, as the article says, adult alumni have similarly defended West against the allegations. And I also find it frightening that even at this age, teens are receiving these types of rape apologist messages. Either they’re being taught this kind of thing by our society directly, or we are critically failing to teach them the opposite.
I’ve long lamented the fact that no one wants to think that someone they know, let alone love, might be a rapist. And they will contort all logic and facts to find a way to either assert that the allegation is a total lie, as done here, or that the allegation in question just doesn’t count as rape.
This may, to some extent, be human nature. But it’s also incredibly dangerous. Rape and sexual assault victims already face an uphill battle to be believed (rather than asked questions about what they were doing, what they were wearing, and how forcefully they said “no”), and to have outsiders so vocally rally around the accused is especially damaging and alienating.
We also know that these views are not benign when it comes to an actual conviction. And I wouldn’t doubt that they hold equal sway with regards to internal investigations of such serious allegations, in addition to criminal ones.
So back to the question I began with. What are we teaching these kids, or failing to teach them? Why are they so readily rallying around authority rather than one of their peers, even if his name is unknown? Did the principal actually state, as suggested by the quoted sophomore, that the allegations against West are a lie? I hope not, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t heavily imply it.
It’s true that West could be entirely innocent. Maybe he’s not that kind of guy. The odds are heavily against any particular sexual assault allegation being fabricated, but it’s still possible. The fact is, however, that we don’t know whether or not he’s that kind of guy. And neither do these students, just by their virtue of having interacted with him.
Clearly, we’re not giving kids the tools they need to understand that there is nuance between good and evil, and that committing good actions doesn’t mean you’re incapable of also committing atrocious ones. Surely, we shouldn’t be teaching them that they can’t trust anyone, but shouldn’t we be teaching them that unquestioning trust is dangerous? That sometimes those we see as “good people” can do bad things, and vice versa?
And how are these kinds of attitudes going to play out when one of their peers is inevitably accused of sexual violence, someday? Well, I think we know the answer to that. What we also know is that this cycle of disbelief over sexual violence starts early. And there should be things that we can do, just as early, to prevent it.