I was once investigated for sexual harassment. I was a middle school teacher so this was a serious charge.
It was a Friday. I’d just taught my first class of the day. It was my prep period. I was walking through the halls anticipating the weekend. The principal found me and told me to come to her office and I should bring another teacher as a union rep. This scared me from head to toe, I hadn't a clue what was going on. I found a colleague who was also on his prep. The principal was waiting in her office along with one of the vice principals and an associate superintendent for the school district. They looked somber. Without any preliminaries I was told that there had been a charge of sexual harassment against me by a student. I was further informed that I would be suspended immediately with pay while the matter was investigated. I was not told who the student was nor anything relating to the nature of the accusation.
The world had collapsed beneath me. I felt like I was in a Kafka novel.
I was led to my classroom to collect my things, one of the school safety officers was called over to drive me home. I'm not sure why this was necessary unless they just wanted to make sure that I left school property. Before leaving I went to turn off the classroom computer as I always did before going, but the vice principal was there to block me from touching it. That added further humiliation.
The rest of the day and the weekend were excruciating as I searched my mind for what possibly could have led to the accusation. I went over any possible interaction that might have been misconstrued and came up with nothing. Depression enveloped me, so did fear. My livelihood was on the line and I had no idea why. I could lose my job, I could lose my teaching credential, I could even face criminal charges.
Monday I was home, not having to work and getting paid for it but I couldn’t have been more miserable. Of course I had told my wife, but I couldn't let on with the children they were told I wasn't feeling well. I called the union office regularly for updates. They had nothing that they could share. I made arrangements with the school office to drop off lesson plans. I was under no official obligation to do so, but felt a personal and professional obligation to my students. Of course I could only come to school after students had been dismissed. A few colleagues came by to check in with me and offer their support and sympathy. I noted that my computer was gone, I later discovered it had been taken by school district officials and thoroughly searched.
On Thursday I finally got the call from the superintendent of human resources that I was free and clear and could back to work the next day. They were still unable to tell me who had charged me with what, just that I’d been cleared. It was a tremendous relief and I couldn’t wait to get back to work.
I subsequently learned that many of my female students had been interviewed. This was chilling. What must they know think of me now? Was I forever stigmatized in their minds?
To this day, over 13 years later, I have no idea who had accused me of what.
I was a teacher and I had five classes and about 120 students I was responsible for so I returned to work and put the nightmare behind me as best I could. But it nagged. Which of my female students had been questioned? What had they said? How did they feel about me after the questioning? I completely put out of my mind any thoughts of who might have made the accusation. I’d been over that in my mind repeatedly during the suspension and came up with nothing. But my best guess was that a student had reported something rather innocuous, maybe as revenge for a bad grade or for me having taken disciplinary action against her, and the principal had decided to make a meal of it.
One of the factors working against me had been that, at the time, we had a simply awful principal who had a veritable enemies list among the teachers which included me. I reckoned that she was the real culprit. (I shed no tears when she was fired a year later and four years after that was similarly dismissed from another principal position for the same reasons that she was canned in Berkeley, those reasons including incompetence, pettiness and a propensity to lie.)
In the years since I rarely think about my suspension although it occasionally resurfaces, causing a shudder and adding to the PTSD I already suffer from. I’m not angry or bitter about the experience anymore but I do still vividly recall how awful it was.
I think about this as women are increasingly coming forward with stories of sexual assaults and harassment that they have suffered. It is a painful time in our culture but an absolutely necessary one. For far too long women have suffered in relative silence, afraid to come forward with their stories. The recent Supreme Court hearings as well as accusations agains prominent people in the entertainment industry have exposed offenders and the degree to which society is silent and complicit in the face of gender abuse.
But I also believe in due process. It is a cornerstone of our democracy and in the principle of justice. When their are myriad credible accusations and stories such as those against the likes of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, there can be little doubt of guilt. But even Cosby got his day in court before being found guilty. The #MeToo movement as done a great deal to expose offenders and support victims, but it is not without problems of its own.
Last Spring another adopted child of Farrow and Allen, Moses, told a very different story in a blog post, contradicting what Dylan said and charging Farrow with abuse. Many in #MeToo were not kind to him for going against the dominate narrative. One wrote: I will not dignify his post by reading it. Imagine such a response to an abuse survivor bravely sharing his or her story. The actress Roseanne Arquette tweeted to Moses: how much did they pay you to write that? Again this to an abuse survivor recounting their past trauma. More recently Allen’s wife Soon-Yi was interviewed by Vulture and told her story about the abuse she suffered from Farrow. Reaction from many in #MeToo was swift. She was condemned. Evidently #believewomen only applies to certain women, not those who, again, contradict a preferred narrative. Hypocrisy was on further display as many pointed out that the interview was conducted by a friend of Allen’s. However two Vanity Fair articles boosting Dylan’s story were authored by a friend of the Farrows, Maureen Orth and the aforementioned Kristof, who yielded his column to Dylan, is a close friend of the Farrows. Proving he has no journalistic integrity, Kristof refused to give equal time to Moses.
All this is not to say that #MeToo is not important or does not have a place. But we need be wary of painting with too broad a brush and of denying due process where called for. Allen in fact was afforded due process and was cleared but now he’s being re-tried and found guilty — sans any new evidence — by social media.
Hopefully saner and cooler heads will soon prevail and some of the overreach and hypocrisy corrupting #MeToo will dissipate. Also as abusers are uncovered perhaps we can move away from merely castigating the offender and start to look at the causes of the abuse. After all when there is a mass shooting there is very little time devoted to railing against the killer (it is a given he will face justice) and more time spent examining the causes. Maybe in the future we will be able to safely assume that abusers will be prosecuted and afforded due process and focus instead on the difficult work of fixing the societal issues that lead to men violating women. While who did it makes for good headlines, why it happens is what we need to focus on.