The statistics on the sexual abuse of children are staggering. Victims are everywhere. They are current students. They are current parents, our neighbors and our neighbors’ children. And many, many of them live in silence seeing people every day react in a way that suggests they do not want to hear the truth about uncomfortable topics like ‘sex’ (in quotes because what we are really talking about is not sex). And each time a victim senses this, he or she learns to hold onto silence a little bit tighter; that is the nature of fear and shame.
Children are watching and learning from how we address this issue. They have a really amazing ability to sense and understand how their school and the people around them (much less society at large) react to things — not the words they are told, but the genuine response. Most communication, after all, is nonverbal.
Children who are victims of sexual abuse all live with some part of shame and fear. Some victims are strong enough to speak and when they are not heard (or worse are silenced), that shame and fear is only heightened. Others do not speak up for any number of reasons, but the shame and fear is very real for them nonetheless.
So how is this relevant to your child’s school? I think it likely that current students have picked up on the fact that their institution does not want to discuss sexual abuse, that their authority figures believe that bad things that have happened should be relegated silently to the past, and that those authority figures view simply speaking openly as a threat in the present, even if the shameful harm was in the past.
Policies and programs put in place by schools are important. Students learn that sexual abuse is wrong, will not be tolerated, and that they should speak up immediately about it. But if our schools won’t show our children they are not afraid to address the past and present, students won’t speak up. Unless statistical lightening strikes, among these students are multiple victims of sexual abuse. Imagine for a moment being such a student, living with your violation as a secret, and knowing that the school you attend wants its own history silenced.
Now imagine instead that Horace Mann and other schools were to respond with true openness to its former students who were victimized. If it were to stand up with strength, apologize meaningfully, acknowledge its mistakes, demonstrate that it cares about the harm to any and all, and communicate not only with words, but with actions, that there are no secrets of which we need be ashamed and that no victim of sexual abuse need be afraid. If it did that, I would start to believe a school is ‘safe’.
Programs are not enough – if the school is to protect its students, it must demonstrate through its actions that silence and shame will not be tolerated within its walls, that its leaders will not reject difficult truths because they are scared. At the moment, as far as I can tell, its actions say the opposite. Sadly, its actions are being seen not only by its own students, but by people everywhere.
So this is my plea: that we all step back and consider that each act along this difficult path must make it known that nothing that has happened in the past should be feared and that however awkward and however painful discussing sexual abuse can be, discussing it can only help us and certainly cannot hurt us. That we be strong enough to say “this scares me” or “this angers me” but that we never be so weak as to suggest silence would be better. That as we fight for assistance for our fellow alumni who are survivors, for some community healing, and/or for how we want things to be at the school today, we remember that somewhere there is a child living silently with shame and fear who is watching how we all react and what he or she sees will decide whether or not he or she feels safe enough to ask for help.
(My special thanks to Ben Field, HM ’89, a singular voice for survivors and no more silence.)