This editorial appears in the June 29, 2012 issue of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
Last week a jury convicted Penn State's former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, of 45 out of a possible 48 counts in the child sexual abuse trial that rocked a legendary athletic program, a college campus and our nation. He received a virtual life sentence.
Within hours of the verdict, online communities were rife with comments celebrating the court's decision and proclaiming that Sandusky "deserved" to be raped in prison.
As a mother, I share the outrage of loving adults horrified by the damage this man wreaked on young children. But as an anti-violence educator I stand by what I tell my self-defense students: "There is nothing you can do or be that could make you deserve to be raped." When I say "nothing," I mean it. This includes being a rapist. My vision is not of a world where perpetrators are perpetrated against. It is of a world free of sexual assault.
One of the marks of a civil society is the strength, fairness and effectiveness of its justice system. Not its vengeance system. The wish to see Sandusky sexually violated - a sentiment often horribly shaded with racism and homophobia - is a desire for revenge. But grievous injury to the perpetrator is not the best legacy we can hope for in this tragedy.
I am hugely relieved that Sandusky will be held accountable for his bad acts. I was deeply moved to hear Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly say on NPR, "One of the recurring themes of the witnesses' testimony, which came from the voices of the victims themselves in this case, was, 'Who would believe a kid?' And the answer to that question is, we here in Bellefonte, Pa., would believe a kid."
May this be one of the enduring legacies of this tragedy: May we believe children.
And may another legacy be for loving, safe adults to educate and empower ourselves to protect children so that something like this never happens again.
The Northampton-based child abuse prevention organization Stop it Now! puts it this way: "'Be that adult.' The adult who is there for children and young people. The adult who learns to recognize warning signs. The adult who is not afraid to speak up about concerning behaviors towards children. The adult who is like a broken record until their concerns are taken seriously."
Like so much of self-defense, speaking up for kids requires trusting your instincts and using your strong, assertive voice. It is hard and scary work.
Too many of us hesitate to speak out because we fear we might be wrong. In the Sandusky case we see the worst outcome when people don't speak out. But nothing so terrible could ever happen from grownups holding each other accountable for safe boundaries and appropriate behavior.
In fact, as an anti-violence educator, I believe that parents' insistence on safety practices serves your children's self-defense interests even if the adult in question would never have perpetrated against them.
By setting the bar high you teach your child to expect gold-standard behavior from adults. You help to hone her instincts - what one of my students calls "the internal creep-o-meter." You model how to speak up when your sense of safety is compromised.
As we say in my religious community, "We're not safe because we love each other; we're safe because we follow safety rules."
These are some of my family's safety rules:
No secrets. Safe grownups don't ask kids to keep secrets.
Your body is your own. No one can touch you in any way that is not OK with you.
Kids' needs come first. A safe grownup doesn't use kids to serve his adult emotional needs.
In community programs there are rules as well:
No favoritism. Programs that serve children treat all kids equally. "Special" relationships between grownups in authority positions and children are suspect.
Transparency. My child enrolls only in programs that welcome my full participation and presence. Any class or teacher that requires me to cede access or control of my child to them is disallowed.
Best practices. Programs serving children should have established policies and procedures for preventing violence against children. You can learn more about best practices and the warning signs of sexual abuse at www.stopitnow.org.
Responses to your advocacy can tell you a lot. Organizations serving kids should welcome parents' feedback, willingly review policies and procedures and quickly correct errors and oversights. An organization that fails to do so may be protecting an abuser or it may be poorly managed and dysfunctional. Either way it falls short of best practices and is not a good fit for your family.
Similarly, an individual who is committed to your children's safety should be curious about the practices you are teaching your children so they can reinforce them. A grownup who won't follow safety rules - even if a beloved relative or friend - is not a safe grownup.
Jerry Sandusky's victims demonstrated courage and dignity beyond measure in bringing this perpetrator to justice. The greatest legacy we can give them is to approximate a fraction of their bravery and take a stand for children's safety.