Child sexual abuse is a terrifyingly common crime, one that often goes undetected. Since children spend more waking hours in school than they do at home, educators have a unique role in their students' lives. Teachers aren't just educators. For many students, they are the only source of stability, compassion, and support. They are also mandated reporters, required to report incidents of suspected abuse.
Unfortunately, even teachers with the best intentions fail to identify child victims of sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse is one of the most stigmatized crimes, and one of the most difficult to detect. Children rarely disclose their abuse and perpetrators almost always fly under the radar, positioning themselves as trustworthy and helpful. Perpetrators not only groom their victims, they also groom entire communities. When reports of child sexual abuse surface, associates of the perpetrator almost universally respond with shock and disbelief. Some are so incredulous that they defend the perpetrator while slandering the victim.
Child sexual abuse is such a horrific crime that it is easier to create a fantasy that it does not exist in our neighborhoods. When faced with confronting the reality of child rape, it is often easier to create a more palatable scenario: The child is lying. Believing the child involves facing two horrible truths: A child in the community has been victimized and our communities are not as safe as we would like to believe.
The case of Brock Turner, a Stanford swimmer convicted of sexual assault, highlights another reason teachers and other mandated reporters often fail to detect child sexual abuse. Between instances of rape and abuse, perpetrators appear to be upstanding members of the community. A surprising number of people cling to their initial impression of the perpetrator, failing to adjust their assessment of him (or her) based on new information. In the case of Brock Turner, that new information was a conviction of sexual assault. In the case of my perpetrator, and many others, that new information was an admission of child sexual abuse. This phenomenon is widespread.
One of the most upsetting aspects of the Brock Turner case is the community response to his crimes. Even after Turner was convicted of sexual assault, he received an overwhelming amount of support in the form of letters to the court. Those letters are available via LATimes.com.
Shockingly, many of the letters came from mandated reporters: a guidance counselor, high school registrar, teachers, and coaches. These are people required to alert authorities if they suspect child abuse. These are people entrusted to protect our children. Here are a few of their comments about Turner after he was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster:
- Meghan Olson, swim coach for the Dayton Raiders: "I appreciate being given this opportunity to speak up on behalf of this young man that I still believe to be a remarkable young person."
Though Turner raped his victim in public and there were witnesses to his crime, most sexual assaults and instances of child sexual abuse take place behind closed doors. Victims cower in silence and shame while their perpetrators continue to win the trust of the very people who could help them.
Mandated reporting laws are ineffective if the people trusted to report overlook episodes of sexual assault (and child rape in my case). Mandated reporters, like the ones who minimized the gravity and horror of Turner's crimes, are ineffective when they think that perpetrators' crimes are "mistakes" and they are still people of good character despite the damage they cause to innocent victims.
Rape and sexual abuse are very sneaky crimes. The reason these crimes are so underreported is because victims stay silent and perpetrators are so good at presenting themselves as respectable, honorable members of society. That is part of a perpetrator's modus operandi. No perpetrator spends his or her entire day raping and assaulting people. All perpetrators have time before and after the assault to interact with peers, charm coworkers, impress teachers and coaches.
It takes a village to enable a perpetrator and it takes a village to support victims. It is imperative that teachers and other mandated reporters separate the surface personality and charm of a perpetrator with their duty to protect children. Perpetrators are beloved colleagues, compassionate pastors, and tireless volunteers. We often look up to them. We want to be like them. Once we suspect, or know, that these community heroes are perpetrators, the safety of children must trump our initial impressions.
Teachers must defend children, not rapists; they must disrupt the silence and shame surrounding sexual abuse and assault instead of spreading dangerous attitudes and perpetuating rape culture.