One week before Christmas, sitting poolside at our Disney World resort in 86-degree weather, and watching our children gleefully slide down a water slide without a care in the world, my cell phone rang. It was our sons’ school. The principal’s voice sounded an automated message no parent wants to hear: a teacher of both our boys had been arrested. I was shocked, and, despite myself, I began to try to “reason” how this could have innocently happened. Maybe he’d been out at a holiday party, consumed alcohol, and gotten caught up in some public prank. Maybe he’d had an expired license. Perhaps he was simply in the wrong company at the wrong time.
We knew this guy well (or so we thought). This teacher was well-loved in our small, close-knit school community. He had been a reliable work colleague, and he had taught our 15-year-old son for three and a half years, nearly a quarter of our son’s short life. My husband and I trusted him. He had mentored our kids, garnered cool points for “getting” stuff like RPGs (role-playing games for the layman), and was the one teacher my son felt “understood” him and his friends. This teacher had grown the fledgling music program into a quality curriculum. We had all just celebrated a beautiful performance the previous week. Yet, here we were.
With few details, I looked online. A quick internet search produced several news articles. It was no DUI. Our children’s teacher was arrested for an internet sex crime against a 13-year-old child. It was a swift hit in the gut. The news would devastate my kids.
My tall, serious, 15-year-old boy just cried. I simply sat beside him and let him cry. He was sad, he said. He was sad to think he would never see his teacher again. He felt like someone told him his teacher had died. In a way, I guess it was a death. It was the death of the person he’d thought he’d known. He was experiencing grief.
He said he couldn’t believe his teacher would do such a thing. He worried about him being in jail. My husband, a former police officer, and I, an abuse survivor, were understanding and compassionate, but we were also real with him. We discussed the gravity of the crime, allowed him to read the charges and definitions of the charges for himself, talked about probable cause, requirements for search warrants, and the type of evidence gathered before police made arrests.
He said, “You know, you always told me to be careful. You said people we trusted were the ones to commit this type of crime. You were right.” I’ve never hated being right so much. His father and I told him that his teacher was still presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that, while we would be realistic about the situation, his teacher deserved due process. We said we trusted the justice process and would be patient. And we discussed how no person is innately good or innately evil. A person can make mostly good choices in life, and then decide to do something despicable. Fortunately, we told him, most people don’t up and decide to act criminally. But some people do. Each of us makes choices every day, and each of us must be accountable for the consequences of our actions. We said that his teacher’s good actions were real, but bad actions were real, too. This seemed to make sense to him.
The next day, we were at The Magic Kingdom, the most magical place on earth minus the terrible heat and suffocating crowd. We were making the most of our day, putting the previous day’s news behind us, and having fun. We’d just finished a pirate scavenger hunt and were buying a Dole Whip treat, and my son was standing, absent-mindedly where he was about to sink his arm into a sticky melted puddle on the counter. Twice I looked at him and said, “Move your arm, son.” He ignored me. The third time I said it, he snapped at me, “The counter isn’t sticky here!” Then, he landed his elbow right in the sticky mess I’d been trying to help him avoid.
He was struggling. We found quite possibly the only quiet spot in Disney World. He cried again, and I just hugged him. I told him that I wanted so badly to protect him from every evil in the world, but no matter how hard I tried to keep him from all that’s bad, he might just land in the middle of bad stuff anyway. Things sometimes seemed sweet, and then could, all of a sudden, melt into an ugly, yucky, sticky mess. All I could do when that happened was be there to hold the napkins and help wipe up the nasty goop. I said that even though, as his mother, I would inevitably annoy him A LOT, he’d be glad to have me around because, no matter what nasty goop found him, I’d still be there holding the napkins. That got a laugh out of him.
We’ve got more healing ahead, especially after the boys return to school. The good news is that the boys’ school community has responded appropriately, and they understand the support these kids need. Sexual abuse strikes every community. It’s not “what do we do if this happens,” so much as “how do we respond when this happens.” This experience reminded me that even when we do prepare our kids, when we talk to them often, educate them about sexual abuse and internet safety, debunk the myth of stranger danger with them, and teach them to come to us–even then–we cannot predict others’ actions and we cannot protect our kids from all harm. It also reminded me that there are secondary victims of sexual abuse.
Those close to the people involved in abuse incidents or the places where abuse incidents occur may experience trauma, too. Abuse that occurs in educational or religious settings can send trauma reverberating through entire communities, and it’s important for both direct and indirect victims to receive positive support in the wake of such events.
One site I found in helping my boys is The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. NCTSN defines community violence as “an intentional attempt to hurt one or more people, including homicides, sexual assaults, robberies, and weapons attacks (bats, knives, guns, etc.).” In the aftermath of community violence, youth may suffer increased anxiety and fear of being harmed. Teens could experience a shift in interpersonal relationships following community events where trust is betrayed.