16 November 2007

The Letter

Some days "the Letter" informs parents that there is a lice outbreak. This week, "the Letter" was similar to one that went out to parents at tony private Graland Country Day School, and a suburban Golden, Colorado public school earlier this week. It got right to the point:

I'm writing to let you know that a [Denver Public Schools elementary school] paraprofessional, was arrested on November 14, 2007 by Denver Police Department detectives for alleged sexual assaults on students.

The letter was appropriately frank without being salacious. It told those with a reason to be suspicious enough how to follow up in the following two paragraphs, it told those who might hear rumors enough to put them at ease, and it said sufficiently little to avoid infringing on the privacy of the accused or any alleged victims, who are either currently identified or might come forward. Given the distressing circumstances, I'll happily excuse an excess comma in an otherwise well crafted opening sentence.

The school has done the right thing in a difficult situation. There are times when public schools rely too much on police to solve problems. This is clearly not such a case, and Denver Police wouldn't have made an arrest if it was premature. The Denver Public Schools have not made the mistake that was made by the Roman Catholic Church and other large institutions of trying to cover up what happened to protect its reputation. The facts have been reported to authorities while the cases are presumably fresh, and reports have been taken seriously enough to determine the scope of the harm and properly investigate in a manner that puts no other child at risk. Publicity has so far been minimal, protecting the rights of the accused.

For someone who is involved in the daily life of the school, it isn't hard to connect the dots, to get a somewhat more full version of the story. And, like a responsible person with no first hand knowledge, or even detailed second hand reports, of what has happened, I remain agnostic on the case's ultimate outcome. While I could name names, that would be irresponsible. Neither the accused, nor the possible victims would benefit from naming names on the Internet.

There are about 72,000 students in the Denver Public Schools, about 4,000 teachers, and about 2,000 paraprofessionals. Every teacher and paraprofessional works with students every day, often unsupervised. Sooner or later, events like this will happen. The District secures fingerprint verified criminal record checks for every employee that works with students, taken at the administrative building a block and a half from my office. The District maintains detailed paperwork in HR files and student records that would make small business people cringe. There is only so much that a school district can do.

It may come out that warning signs were ignored. Perhaps by school officials, perhaps by family members of victims, perhaps by family members or friends of the alleged perpetrator, perhaps by bystanders. It may come out that there was no warning at all, perhaps out of fear of retribution.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, we don't punish people with jail terms and lashes for being raped, particularly when our courts find that they were telling the truth. But, this doesn't mean that reporting sexual assault is risk free. You can tell the truth and not be believed. You can be socially shunned. You can be dragged into the painful process of being a witness in open court. When gang members are involved, being a witness can give rise to private retribution.

Reporting a crime almost inevitably results in a burden for the person making the report. While the perpetrator is often punished, the victim often receives little or no personal benefit from doing so. Restitution is often minimal, and civil judgments are hard to enforce against someone who has no income because that person is in prison and has only modest assets also pursued by dependent family members and creditors of the perpetrator.

Justice can sometimes heal psychic wounds if the criminal justice process works, and it usually does to some extent (about 99% of prosecutions, not dismissed by prosecutors voluntarily, result in a conviction for something) but that is something that children may not appreciate for a decade. When they revisit their feelings as adults and see that a perpetrator did not act with impunity and that the system gave a damn about what happened to them they may then decide that it was all worthwhile. Often, the main benefits for a victim of reporting a crime are to end a continuing pattern of abuse and threat, if there is one, and to use the power of your knowledge to fulfill a civic duty to protect others similarly situated. Empowerment has its virtues, but it isn't all it is cracked up to be either.

Survivor may no longer be a badge of shame. But, it isn't a status one would wish upon anyone either. The ritual of seeking to punish the wrongdoer is one optional piece of that puzzle that protects the rest of us. But, we have little in place to heal the subtler harms of a crime. If you are lucky, you have health insurance that can pay for some counseling at your own expense, and you may perhaps even get restitution for your co-payments. If you aren't lucky, you cry, your life falls apart for a while, you are afraid of things that shouldn't make you afraid, and eventually, you rebuild and go on with your life somehow. If you are lucky, your childhood experiences won't lead you to run away or become a prostitute or have baggage in relationships when you are older.

Thank you to those of you who are sacrificing now to make other children safe.


Ted said...

Nice entry.

As a fellow Steel parent, I share your sentiments as far as how the whole affair has been handled (thus far)

Really unfortunate stuff, no matter what happened. Happy to see, though, that none of the more overzealous (but well meaning, of course) parents have taken to the streets, torches in hand.

Take care.

Anonymous said...

I believe the school handled this very well, and will be waiting for all the facts to come out before making any judgments. This is definitely one of those times when the accused are always guilty until proven innocent. I applaud the victims for finding a voice to come forward, I applaud the teacher, and the principal for acting on it, and I hope that for all involved, the truth comes out soon. I can't help as a parent at the school and having known the accused to be very sad for him and his son if this did not actually happen. But I am also not in the know with all the details....rightly so. I was very discouraged seeing that parent on channel 4 speaking for all us parents supposedly and saying that we were all kept in the dark and the school should have offered more details and notice. I believe the school handled this situation as well as they could without having all the students being aware of what was/is going on and I will reserve all judgment and let the detectives do their job. Either way, this is a no win situation for everyone, and I can only hope some of the ubermoms are able to step back a little and not start any more rumors based solely upon raw feelings. This is a tough pill, and letter to swallow as it is.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

No convictions resulted from the charges, apparently primarily due to concerns about victim credibility about the claim that the offense had occurred.

As I understand it, these concerns involve the possibility that false accusations may have been made in retaliation for student discpline, and that there was not a time or place where the alleged assaults could have taken place.

It is not clear from my sources, but the charges appear to have been dismissed sometime prior to trial.

The defendant suffered a stroke while the proceedings were pending. There may also have been financial impacts and non-criminal collateral consequences of the case for the defendant.