Community Against Violence editorial column

Recently, an anonymous Taoseña submitted a Taos News My Turn [editorial essay] revealing her experience of sexual assault being habitually covered up in the Taos community. The author specifically called out the community for allowing a middle school teacher and coach to sexually assault many young girls - including herself at age 14 - and did so over many years with the tacit approval of school and district administrators, and even some parents.

Here's a sobering excerpt: "Over and over again, I heard the phrase, 'everyone knew he was a pervert,' yet he was allowed to teach, coach and violate the community's trust. Several years later, I finally shared my own story from when I was his student with an older parent at my daughter's charter school. Her response was, 'yeah, everyone knew he was touchy-feely, but he never did anything to me, because of the family I came from.'"

While the standing myth is that sexual assault is committed by perverted strangers, the reality is approximately 90 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by someone the victim knows - stepparent/parent, other relative, neighbor, coach, church member, youth group leader, etc.

Abuse by a familiar person can lead to a cover-up - a culture of silence - by others within that circle. The courageous My Turn author found this out after her assault: "His military service, professional experience and standing in the religious community insured no one would do a thing … the principals, vice-principals, superintendent, every school board member he worked under, were all complicit."

One might hope other similar revelations from national news might inspire a local movement to end the silence around sexual violence: Jerry Sandusky, football coach at national powerhouse Penn State, exposed and sent to jail; National gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar - exposed and sentenced to life in prison; USA Swimming banned more than 150 coaches because of alleged sexual abuse.

It's incredibly hard for young victims to come forward. It's up to us grownups to keep an eye on adults interacting with our children and look for warning signs. To help protect our children/teens:

• Know teachers, coaches, daycare providers, youth group leaders and other significant adults in their lives. Let them know your family has rules that no adult is to be alone with your child;

• Make unannounced visits, ask questions, stay involved in your child's life;

• Teach children to respect their own personal space and bodies, and to be wary of physical contact initiated by adults;

• Listen if your child says they are uncomfortable around a particular adult, or your child repeats something provocative or inappropriate. The safest child is one who knows they can bring concerns to caregivers without criticism or retaliation.

We at CAV are committed to ending the silence that makes sexual assault possible in our community. We need your help. Trust your gut - suspicions are enough. Text #SAFE (7233), or call 855-333-SAFE (7233). For prevention information, go to Stopitnow.org/help-guidance/prevention-tools.

A final word from our brave My Turn writer: "Taos Family, I know this hurts and it's painful to write about; it's painful for me knowing I failed to speak and protect my fellow sisters in Taos. If we want to live in a better place we need to expose the predators and stop this from happening ... The secrecy keeps us in the dark and keeps us from being whole, disrupting our lives. Let's stop being afraid of our secrets. Only when secrets are exposed can they be healed."

Malinda Williams is executive director of Community Against Violence (CAV) which offers FREE confidential support and assistance for child and adult survivors of sexual and domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, and child and elder abuse; community and school violence prevention programs; re-education groups for people using power and control in their relationships; counseling; shelter; transitional housing; and community thrift store. To talk or get information on services, call CAV's 24-hour hotline at 575-758-9888 or find out more at TaosCAV.org.

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