If a student were to tell you that a colleague has been sexually harassing her, what would you do? And how quickly? The author learned the complicated answers to these questions early in his career.
It was hot out that day, and still—early autumn in the deep South. My classroom was in the basement of the main building, which piled high above, five stories of classrooms, labs, offices, a gym, and an auditorium. Even in that cool basement room, I could feel the heat.
I had a four-period day—a pair of two-hour English classes in the morning, an hour break for lunch, a study hall from 1 to 3, and then another two-hour English class. I remember walking across campus after lunch, along the narrow lanes between oak trees, and feeling the heat come down like a bludgeon. It had hit me in the face as I walked out the door of the dining hall and surrounded me like fabric. I was from the North, and life as a teacher at this private school was new to me.
That day I would have a small group studying with me for an hour, until 2, and then I’d be alone, able to correct papers and steal a 20-minute nap, my head on the gray desktop. I would awaken stiff, my face strangely lined, with 10 minutes to write an agenda on the board before the last class filed in, awaiting their fate: Faulkner; participles; Hughes.
But today, as the group left the room—dressed in their blue and white uniforms, the girls in skirts, the boys in pants—another student walked in. Ronnie (all names in this piece and some identifying details have been changed) was about 5 foot 7 and was one of my favorite students from my second- period English III class. She was polite, well-spoken, diligent, and even asked sometimes for extra work. She seemed well-adjusted and was pretty in a way somehow more mature than her peers.
“Mr. Robb,” she said, “would you mind if I sat in here for your free period? I have some work to do.”
“What’s up with your regular study hall?”
“Oh, Mr. Smith is off-campus for the afternoon.”
There goes my nap, I thought. I needed a rest to make it through my last two-hour class with anything resembling grace. But Ronnie seemed to need a place to do her work.
“Sure, Ronnie,” I said, “Come on in. I’ve got some work to do, too. Just put that doorstop in front of the door there—it’s cooler in here with the door open, and I can hear what’s going on in the hall.”
We worked through the hour, I at my desk at the back of the classroom, she at a desk in the middle surrounded by 35 empty desks. I didn’t know Ronnie well, but I was glad she felt comfortable enough to work alone in my classroom. Several times it seemed she was about to say something. At the end of the hour, she left with a quiet “Thank you, Mr. Robb” as my sophomore class began to trickle in.
The next day, at 7:30 a.m., I was patrolling the back of the auditorium, where my homeroom assembled. As I stood there waiting for the announcements to end, I saw Smith walking toward me. A short man, about 35, with dark eyes that sparkled with energy, he was a Spanish teacher and an ordained minister. His homeroom was on the far side of the hall, and as he approached, I said, “Hey, Mr. Smith, hope you had a good afternoon off-campus yesterday.”
He smiled but looked confused.
“What? I was here all afternoon,” he said as he continued walking toward his homeroom. I understood his haste; we were all under pressure to take attendance and distribute announcement materials. So I let it go.
And then later, as my third-period study hall students were leaving at 2 p.m., there was Ronnie, walking quietly into my room.
“Mr. Robb, would it be all right if I worked in here again today?” There was something urgent in the request.
“Yeah, sure, Ronnie,” I said, “come on in.” I propped the door open and shoved the doorstop underneath, then went back to my desk and looked through papers while considering what to do. After 10 minutes, as Ronnie took notes from a biology text, I cleared my throat.
“You know, Ronnie, I ran into Reverend Smith at assembly this morning, and he said he was on campus all yesterday afternoon.”
She froze, then looked at me.
“What did he say to you?” she asked.
“That’s all he said, Ronnie.”
“Did you say anything else to him? About me?”
“I didn’t say anything else.”
She looked toward the blackboard, and I could see she was crying—with no sound, just tears. After half a minute, I said, “What’s wrong, Ronnie?”
She put her head down and said, “I can’t tell you, Mr. Robb. It’ll ruin everything.”
“Nothing’s going to ruin everything, Ronnie,” I said. “What’s going on?”
“I can’t say.” After 10 minutes of similar back and forth, I stood up and said I was going to get my department head to help sort things out.
“No, Mr. Robb! You can’t do that! I can’t speak to her, not now!”
“Look, Ronnie, you brought this up. You need to speak to someone about it, and if I’m not the right person, maybe Ms. Cartwright—”
“No! Just give me a minute, OK? Just give me a minute.”
She calmed herself down and said that Mr. Smith had on several occasions sent his other study hall students on errands, and when they were gone, he’d fondled her breasts and legs. She said she was afraid of him. She said he said no one would believe her. And she said, through more tears, that it had to remain a secret.
I told her I believed her. “I am with you up to the last part, Ronnie, but we have to go to Mr. Montgomery,” I said, referring to the principal. “Reverend Smith might be doing this to others, and we can’t let him get away with it. You collect yourself, and we go find Mr. Montgomery.”
“No, Mr. Robb! This can’t come out! It will ruin my year! I just want it to stop! I just want everything back the way it was.” She looked at me beseechingly. We went around this point several times, and finally, I acquiesced. It was Friday. She wouldn’t see Smith again until Monday. “I’ll tell you what,” I said. “Take the weekend, get used to the idea of telling Mr. Montgomery, and we will on Monday. I am going to Mr. Montgomery then, whether you’re with me or not.”
I didn’t want to be the second male to force her to do something against her will that week. I wanted to give her some measure of control. I was angry at Smith for what he’d done, but I was also naive about how to handle the situation. By this time, it was 3, the start of my last class. Afterward, I’d drive home, figuring that Ronnie and I would get it all ironed out on Monday.
Boy, was I wrong.
I’ve had some time to think about what I should have done that day, roughly 13 years ago. But it wasn’t until recently, after seeing so many of the headlines, that I began studying the sex-abuse-in-schools issue in depth, mostly by reading literature on the subject. It has become clear to me that what I experienced as a young teacher in an unfamiliar environment is regrettably all too common. So I think it’s worth revisiting just how this experience—as well as another, at the end of the school year—played out.
That Monday, after the weekend had passed, I received a phone call. At 5 a.m.
“Yeah?” I was groggy. It was barely light outside.
“Mr. Robb, this is Mr. Montgomery. You need to come to my office this morning at 7.”
“OK,” I said. “What’s going on?”
“We need to talk about Ronnie Wilkerson.”
“She told you?”
“It doesn’t matter who told me. Be here, please.”
And he hung up. Shit.
At 7, I knocked on Mr. Montgomery’s door, deep in the heart of the main building.
“Come in” emerged quietly from within, and I entered. He stood 6 foot 3, a massive man of about 45 years, behind his desk at the back of his office, which was 10 feet by 15 feet, paneled in dark wood, carpeted in thick green. He had both hands on the back of his chair.
“Have a seat, Mr. Robb.”
“OK,” I said, sitting. “I feel like maybe I did something wrong.”
“You sure did. You didn’t come straight to me and tell me about Ronnie. We told you at the beginning of the year that in the case of becoming aware of sexual abuse, you were under an obligation to come and tell me, the administration, right away.”
I swallowed hard. Ronnie hadn’t waited until Monday to tell.
“So what happens now?” I asked.
“Well, it’s under control, so to speak,” he said. “We were able to validate Ronnie’s statement, and we have let the man go, and we have notified the authorities. But I need you to know something.”
As he said this, he squeezed the headrest of his leather chair as if it were a kitchen sponge.
“You put us all at risk. You put me at risk. You put the whole school at risk! If you know about this kind of thing, by federal law you have to tell the administration, and we have to tell the proper authorities, or we can lose our federal funding, and we can be sued for negligence. I am the one to blame legally here, not you, for this. I know you didn’t mean anything by it, but you put us all at risk, and you need to know that.”
By this point, his eyes, usually hooded and slightly closed, were saucers.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I was just trying to let the girl catch her breath before—”
“Ronnie told me all about it,” he interrupted. “She told me it wasn’t your fault, that she pleaded with you. I just need to know that we are straight on this now.”
“Yes sir, we are straight.” I was beginning to think I would leave the office in one piece.
“OK. You can go. Anything like this comes up again, you know where to find me.”
“I sure do, Mr. Montgomery.”
Statistics on sexual misconduct vary, but the best numbers I could find, after extensive reading, are in Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature, a 2004 U.S. Department of Education study authored by Charol Shakeshaft. A professor at Hofstra University, Shakeshaft reports that 7 percent of K-12 students are victims of physical sexual misconduct by an educator or school staff member, while 9 percent are sexually harassed in some other way (visually or verbally, for example). So in a classroom of 30 students, you could legitimately expect to find two kids who’ve been sexually abused, either physically or otherwise, by a school employee. A little more than half of the victims are girls, according to Shakeshaft.
So who’s assaulting these students? Much of the time, it’s men—male teachers, coaches, administrators, and staff members. But I was surprised to find considerable research showing that women are also perpetrators, in some studies as much as 43 percent of the time.
Another fact that struck me is that virtually all men who assault boys identify themselves as heterosexual. Sexual abuse is not, as is commonly thought, necessarily about sex at all. In many cases, the perpetrator feels powerful enough to cross boundaries that are usually considered taboo. Seen in this light, the motivation behind sex crimes can be simplified. Perversion and social deviance sometimes play a role, but it clears the air to understand sexual abuse as a means of control.
There are, of course, overt physical signs of sexual abuse, but these are often not apparent, whereas the psychological signs often can be. An older child might display behavioral symptoms such as depression, withdrawal, mood swings, fear of certain people or places, eating disorders, self-destructive behaviors, or apathy. These are all things to keep an eye out for once you get beyond the idea of “these things happen, but not in my school.”
This is something my extended family had to learn the hard way, with the help of a cousin of mine. Paul is about 40 (my age), and he’s one of the most creative and energetic people I’ve ever known. A businessman, he’s owned several successful art galleries and has always impressed me greatly with his industry and can-do spirit. Before opening a new gallery, he’d remodel the space himself, then take responsibility for every facet of the operation. He was married, the father of two girls, and seemed to have the talents that make for great success in life.
All of this was more impressive when I considered his teens and early 20s, when he was the prodigal son. He dropped out of high school, was in trouble with the law, and seemed to disdain everything mainstream, including college. He was into drugs and traveled the country in a VW bus, telling everyone who didn’t see eye to eye with him where they could get off. And then, in his late 20s, he gradually pulled out of his dive. He established a career, began a family—he was doing well.
A year ago, things fell apart for him again, and he finally told us why. For seven years, when he was a child living with his family at the exclusive boarding school where his father taught, he and other boys were repeatedly sexually assaulted by a male teacher. Paul is struggling now to save his life. His marriage, house, and business are gone, as is the money, which was spent on drugs to manage the pain. The trigger of this new dive? His daughters were approaching the age he was when the abuse began, and the possibility of their experiencing the same was too painful for him to bear.
My extended family possesses a particular kind of intelligence—the ability to read others and their motivations well. Or so we thought. We assumed that Paul, in his younger days, was just rebellious, and we thanked God that he’d found his bearings when he did. And then it all hit the fan. He’d been abused, no one had caught on, and he couldn’t tell his story for 28 years. So I’ve learned to look much more closely for the signs.
What Mr. Montgomery told me about a teacher’s responsibility more than a decade ago still holds true at almost any school. All 50 states require certain professionals to report child abuse; teachers are among those professionals. Of course, in my book, everyone is required to report abuse when it’s suspected. There are also many federal and state statutes pertaining to child abuse—a veritable forest of law. Suffice it to say that wherever you are, you should know those laws. More to the point: Every school should have a policy dealing with sexual misconduct. Most do, but like me when I was 27, not every educator follows it closely enough.
Among the big federal statutes that provide recourse to sexual abuse are Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972; the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which was enacted in 1974 but has been amended many times since; and the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.
Title IX, in particular, states that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” The law’s prohibition against sexual discrimination also covers sexual harassment—as has been shown in a few Supreme Court cases since its inception. The deal is, if a student sues a school for sexual harassment under Title IX, he or she must prove that the school administration knew about the harassment, that the administration was deliberately indifferent to it, and that the harassment was severe enough to limit the student’s opportunities and benefits.
There’s the kicker. And almost every school receives money under Title IX. So it covers almost every student. Similarly, both VAWA and CAPTA provide a wide range of legal options in prosecuting sex abuse crimes.
I knew almost nothing about sex abuse prevention in autumn 1992, and looking back, I think I can forgive my naiveté. I was a pretty typical young teacher, vulnerable to idealism and not that likely to hew to the prescribed schedule in reporting such a crime. I was also clueless about the profile of a likely abuser: They are often well-respected figures, popular teachers or coaches who choose their victims carefully, cultivate a relationship, and win them over or intimidate them with stature before beginning to abuse. Reverend Smith sure flew under my radar.
By spring of that same school year, though, I felt somewhat hardened. I had adapted to the long days, and I could push through six full hours of teaching and a 10-hour day without even a short nap. The winter had been restful, with cooler temperatures and more even tempers. But there are two days in early May that I remember particularly clearly: a Thursday and a Friday.
My sophomores, during last period that Thursday, were working on short stories, and they’d turned in a number of good ones, particularly one about baseball in a cornfield in Yazoo City.
My habit, after my last class let out, was to put on sneakers, grab my mitt, and walk the half-mile to the baseball diamond. I was the assistant coach, and I enjoyed that stroll most days, unwinding from the stress of getting three classes of 30 minds each to focus. I’d amble downhill and think about hitting fungoes to outfielders. That afternoon, I was about halfway to the field, walking along a cow pasture hemmed in by a strong wooden fence, when the baseball story popped into my mind. It was about a kid named Chris and his friends playing ball in a cornfield before it was planted in spring, a simple story—what they said to each other, and why they played—featuring kudzu in the trees along the edge of left field.
Then I remembered the next story in the pile. It was by a sophomore named Margaret. The main character, Sadie, worked at a laundry facility. She was a high school basketball player who was angry about having to miss practice sometimes because of work. Also, the man who managed the laundry was coming on to her, pressing against her as he stood behind her, touching her in ways that disturbed her. She just wanted to quit work.
The story was well-written, with good detail and dialogue. It was strong work, it seemed to me as I walked down the last hill toward the field, which stretched to the west, toward the truck farms on the other side of the highway.
“How you doin’, Coach?” yelled Eliot Greer, the head coach, from the mound. He was a graceful man, a former standout athlete in college who now taught the finer points of baseball to anyone who would listen. I liked him, and his understated style, very much.
“I’m all right, thanks. What would you like me to do today, Coach?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “let’s hit some more fungoes to the outfielders, and then after 20 minutes or so, work with Kevin on his throwing. He’s leading with the wrong foot, and it’s killing him.”
“OK,” I said.
After sending the players to left and center fields, I began banging fly balls out to them. But that story kept coming back to me, the one about the girl in the laundry. I hit a fly to Martin, our third-string center fielder, and watched him coast under the ball, anticipating its impact point rather than sprinting there, and as the ball fell, I saw it clearly. It ticked off the top of his glove and landed behind him. He was in the same English class as Margaret.
“Hey, Martin!” I yelled.
“Come over here, please.” He jogged over, his short legs carrying him easily, his glove held up near his shoulder. He was a good kid.
“What up, Coach?”
“Good try on that last one, but I want you to go to where the ball will land right away, fast as you can, then park under it. No drifting around out there, you got me?”
“Hey, Martin, you know if that girl Margaret in our English class has an on-campus job?”
“Yeah, Coach, she works where I do.”
“In the school laundry, Coach. It’s hot up in there.”
“Thank you, Martin.”
“No problem, Coach.”
Martin sprinted back to center field. He was also our best pitcher. I hit more fungoes, 20 to each kid, then worked with Kevin on his throwing, and after some infield drills and batting practice, the day was over. I drove home, along the old two-lane highway heading north, and about 7, I called Montgomery and read him the essay.
The next morning, first thing, Montgomery and I sat with Margaret and her mother in his office and asked Margaret about her story. The office was dark and quiet, and we sat there for a long time while she thought to herself, then whispered to her mother and cried a little. It was hard for her, and her mother looked pained, but finally Margaret told us that, yes, she was Sadie and that the guy in the laundry had done pretty much what she’d described.
The school fired the man. Charges were brought against him in the local courts, although I lost track of the proceedings once the year ended.
I was still a kid myself back then, and I have since moved on to other teaching jobs in other parts of the country. But at least that year, I grew up enough to understand how prevalent sexual abuse is. I also learned that kids will let you know about it if they feel they can trust you. And if you’re willing to listen.
Vol. 17, Issue 01, Pages 44-48Published in Print: September 1, 2005, as Judgment Call