“Distraught doesn’t even begin to describe it.” Angel Zobel-Rodriguez, a GreatSchool’s community moderator and mother of two (and education blogger) in Los Angeles, is talking about – and echoing – the sentiments of parents across the country. They are trying to make sense of the cases of child abuse – at the hands of teachers – that have recently come to light.
In every conversation I’ve had with parents about these crimes against children in schools, committed by educators who are entrusted with their well-being, there’s a piece of the puzzle that none of us can figure out: Why are we learning about this only now?
The teacher at Miramonte Elementary, who is accused of committing lewd acts on children in the classroom, had been working at the school for 30 years. In 1994, a student had reported that he’d touched her inappropriately, but no charges were ever pressed. (A second teacher at Miramonte Elementary also has been arrested on charges of committing lewd acts.) Another long-time educator who taught music at a prestigious music school in Los Angeles is accused of having sex with students.
More details will surface about these cases in the coming weeks, helping parents make more sense of them and understand why we're hearing only now. But it seems that for the most part a veil of silence covered these crimes. The Miramonte Elementary schoolteacher had taken dozens of photos of children in the classroom, some blindfolded with tape covering their mouths. You’d think that over the years at least one child would come home, and in response to their parents’ predictable question, “What did you do at school today?” instead of the usual, “Nothing,” at least one would say, “My teacher made me do this weird thing...”
We are learning that some did. According to the LA Times, one second grader came home from Miramonte Elementary in 2008 and showed her parents two photos: one shows her with two others girls against a wall; in the second, she is her biting down on a small cookie with a shiny, unidentified substance on top of it. Her parents were disturbed enough to show the photos to the principal, who dismissed them as part of a class project. Other news stories have reported that over the years, other complaints about the same teacher were brought by parents to the administration. Nothing was done. The teachers kept teaching.
Parents teach their children to respect teachers with the implicit message, “Listen to the teacher and do as you are told.” By presenting a united front with the teacher, parents send an important message to their child that the teacher is in charge and knows best.
What remains for parents to grapple with, now that we have these recent atrocities fresh in our minds, is what to tell our kids when we send them off to school every day. Yes, we want them to respect the teacher, especially since the vast majority of hard-working and exemplary teachers deserve their respect.
But we also want our children to be able to recognize when something an adult does is amiss, frightening, and crosses the line into abuse. We want them to tell us the details – the good, bad, and horrific – about what happened at school that day. We want them to know that what they say matters and that we are listening, very carefully.
This blog post was updated February 12, 2012.