Op-Ed : This is wrong: crimes against children
Crimes against children are horrifying. More frequently than can easily be grasped, a trusted adult in a position of authority, such as a teacher, stands accused of statutory rape or of corrupting the morals of a minor (for example, by furnishing drugs or alcohol or pornography). How could anyone do that to a child? Why didn't someone see it and stop it? What's the matter with our schools, our parents, and our community?
After a lifetime in the school business, I can tell you that the main reason these crimes are so difficult to stop is that, unlike other crimes that I can think of, the victim is often an accomplice.
Imagine, if you will, that you are the hypothetical head of a hypothetical boarding school, and Jane Brown comes to you and says that Mary Smith has told her and some other girls, in strictest confidence, that she is now the "girlfriend" of Thomas Jones, a handsome young teacher. Mary Smith is a pretty, 15-year-old honor student. Thomas Jones is 25.
You must act immediately on this information, even though it may not be true. Nothing in the teacher's or the student's interactions has aroused your suspicions. Mary Smith may have been bragging untruthfully to get attention from her friends. Or Jane Brown may be trying to take revenge against Mr. Jones for some slight. It has happened, rarely, that an innocent teacher's reputation has been ruined by a false accusation. Nevertheless, this is serious stuff, and you have to start an investigation.
None of the other friends of Mary Smith will back up Jane Brown's account of the conversation, but you find another student who says he has heard rumors. Another teacher has, too. You call Mary Smith's mother, a single parent who lives in another state, and begin a series of meetings. Thomas Jones denies there is any romantic attachment. Mary Smith denies there is any romantic attachment. Mrs. Smith says she believes her daughter and rejects categorically the suggestion that the police or the local child welfare agency be called into the investigation. There is no proof that any crime has been committed.
You take steps to insure that there is no contact on campus, outside of class, between Mary Smith and Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones resigns at the end of the year, and Mary Smith transfers to another school. A year later, Mary Smith accuses Thomas Jones of statutory rape while she was a student at your school, and she has explicit love letters to prove it. Mrs. Smith sues on the grounds that you should have prevented her daughter's abuse while she was in your care. Thomas Jones will do two years in prison, and the school's insurance company will settle the suit out of court for a six-figure amount.
The rest is speculation. The only thing you know for certain is that Mary Smith and Thomas Jones lacked a clear moral compass. But why? Perhaps for Mary Smith it was exciting to win the young man all the girls admired, and she may have thought of him in the same way she thought about other boyfriends. It is even possible she made the first move. Perhaps Thomas Jones felt himself genuinely in love - he may have thought them a modern-day Will and Ariel Durant. Or perhaps he was a sexual predator. In either case, the responsibility was his. He was unable to ignore what he must certainly have known, that he was engaged in an activity which could end his teaching career and send him to jail. Both of them must have known that what they were doing was wrong, but that may have increased the excitement, and for Mary Smith, it may have given her power in what is inherently a powerless situation. "If I tell, you'll be fired and maybe go to jail."
The adult is to blame, no matter what the circumstances. The child is absolutely not to blame, but what makes it hard for schools and parents and communities is that, like Mary Smith, the victim lies to protect the criminal and perpetuate the forbidden activity. A young victim (no matter what gender or orientation) is unlikely to end a deep emotional relationship by accusing the loved one of a crime. A young victim is unlikely at the time to impeach the connection who provides access to forbidden activities. Even years later, out of feelings of guilt or shame, the victim may never report the criminal.
Is there anything that can be done? Perhaps. While we believe that everyone in authority should come equipped with a strong moral compass, we have to acknowledge that temptations are frequent and yielding to them not as unusual as we would like. Even if 99 percent of teachers are moral and highly motivated professionals (as I believe they are), all teachers have to be told directly, and then reminded often, that friendships with students beyond the professional level are out of bounds and may result in loss of job. Sexual relationships with students, even students over the age of consent, are unacceptable and will bring automatic dismissal. There must be an understanding that regardless of how embarrassing to the school and community, all suspected violations of the law will be reported to the police.
We also need to encourage the Jane Browns in the story above. When an adult is providing liquor or drugs, there are other students who know. When a teacher is inappropriately involved with a student, there are other students who know. Students have to be persuaded that the no-snitching rule doesn't apply when someone is going to be hurt. Make no mistake: victims are harmed, sometimes severely, by these crimes. Often there are some parents who have heard what's going on. Sometimes other teachers have strong suspicions or hear things in confidence (no confidence should be kept when someone is in danger). It is appropriate to step up and say, "This is wrong."
Whose responsibility is it to provide the community with a moral compass? Everyone. Community leaders, school committees, the superintendent, the principals and teachers, the unions, the school advisory committees, the parents' associations, even the students themselves. "This is wrong" is everyone's responsibility, from the top down.
Times contributing editor Dan Cabot is vice-chairman of the Up-Island Regional School District committee, chairman of the All-Island School Committee, and a trustee of the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School. He was for 38 years a teacher in independent boarding schools.