Trigger warning for discussions of statutory rape.
Labor Day weekend. For some, it is the last weekend before school starts up again, filled with one last BBQ and pool party before hitting the books. For others like Tim and me, it is a chance to rest and relax after our first week or two back at school, and it’s a time for reflection and preparation as we now feel we know our students well enough to be able to plan for what lies ahead. For the Moralez family in Billings, Montana, it is a time for deeper mourning and protest over the tragic loss of their daughter by suicide due to her rape by her teacher, and the teacher’s utterly ridiculous 30-day sentence for the crime.
As a teacher, there are few things I hate more than hearing stories about students raped at the hands of their teachers. This is true for a few reasons: First, it just disgusts me that any teacher who has pledged to spend his or her life helping students reach their full potential could ever see a student in a sexual way and, even if they did, could ever act on it. The idea is as repulsive to me as a parent who sexually abuses their child. Second, the media – and the courts, as it were – almost never get these stories right. Because these rapes are almost never violent crimes, it is disgustingly easy for the news media – and the judge in this case – to blame the young victim. Somehow, somewhere, they forget that minors cannot ever legally consent to sexual relationships with adults. Ever. There is no exception to that law. Third, and this is perhaps the point that makes me the most uncomfortable, is that stories like this just further give teachers a bad name. This is a case of a handful of teachers ruining it for the rest of the profession. People end up thinking that teachers can flip at the drop of the hat and all of us are just sexual predators-in-waiting. Newsflash: We are not. On the flip side of that coin, it makes me extremely uncomfortable when people say to me, upon learning that I teach high school English for a living: “Oh, wow. I wish I had a teacher who looked like you when I was in high school. I might have paid attention,” further perpetuating the myth of a sexy high school teacher preying on young boys. I think the only profession that is sexualized more than teachers by Halloween costumes and urban legend are nurses, which is equally revolting.
However, this sort of thing keeps happening and, though it is sensationalized by the media, it happens more often than you would think. And most of the time, it never makes national news, so the world never even hears about it.
Judge Baugh, in delivering Rambold’s ridiculous sentence this week, participated in the ultimate form of victim blaming by stating that, not only could he not connect Moralez’s suicide to the rape, but that the “relationship” (I put that word in quotes here to denote that there could not be ever legally be a romantic relationship between the two, and so that word should have never been used.) was understandable because Moralez seemed cognitively older than 14. Since she committed suicide and could not be present in court to testify, this decision was made based on viewing two videotaped interviews.
The fact that determining someone’s mental age based on two videotaped interviews is utterly mind-boggling aside, mental age has nothing to do with it. No matter how old someone seems, it doesn’t matter compared to how old she is. Mature 14-year-old or not, she was still 14 at the time. He was her teacher, and he was 49. I don’t care how you slice it; this is not okay.
Though I was not raped, I was involved in a similar situation when I was in high school. I had a teacher who put me in a position to be his counselor and confidant, telling me he thought often about committing suicide. At 17 years old, I wanted to be that for him. But I couldn’t. Because I was 17 and his student. It was an inappropriate request on his part, and never should have happened. He was fired from his position because of that and other indiscretions, but he appealed the decision and I was asked to testify against him. I did, but his lawyers ensued in what I now understand was a victim-blaming line of questioning, trying to establish that I was mentally older than I actually was. Which never should have mattered. Because I was 17. And, regardless of that, I was his student. Those lines shouldn’t be blurry.
While my situation was not nearly as extreme as Moralez’s, I share the two in conjunction with one another because the same attitude prevailed. This is victim-blaming blurring the lines that should, legally, be very clear. Students and teachers are not friends. They are not romantic partners. They are not counselors. And, since teachers are the adults in these situations, it is up to them to recognize that, not the student.
I despise teachers who engage with their students in these ways. Now, I despise this judge for making it OK for teachers to do it. There is no way to spin this to make it okay, and my heart goes out to Moralez’s family. Judge Baugh has been asked to resign, and there is a petition at Moveon.org asking for as much. I hope he does, and I hope the family is able to appeal his ruling and obtain some justice for their daughter.
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