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When a Teacher Is Arrested for Child Pornography, Students Will Talk


“Can I ask a question about Mr. W?” 10-year-old Brennan asks, and my stomach takes a roller-coaster dip. We have just left the school potluck, where he spent hours playing a game of tag on the playground. But when I went to retrieve him, I was surprised to discover that he had dropped out of the action and sat alone atop the playground’s chain-link fence, kicking his feet. I asked him what was up but he avoided my eyes and shrugged, saying only that he was ready to go home. Now that we are buckled in and on the road, he is ready to talk.

Mr. W. taught fifth grade at our school last year, when my son was in the fourth grade. Mr. W. was arrested in April, just before spring break, which gave families a little time to talk through these difficult things before the return to school. But I didn’t wait long after I saw the superintendent’s email — trading in child pornography — and Google-searched the teacher’s name — cellphone recordings of children changing. I started the conversation that day, six months ago. We are still having it.

Brennan’s questions are usually concrete and specific. He wants facts about the investigation, the circumstances of the arrest, the crimes themselves. His younger sister Liddy’s are broader and more heartbreaking. She asks things like “Why would somebody do that?”

As soon as the first email went out notifying parents of the arrest, my inbox lit up. Parents were alarmed and wanted answers. Some asked what should we tell the children. Other voices replied, “Nothing.” As a result of pressure from some parents, the school sent letters asking parents to tell children not to talk about Mr. W.’s arrest at school. The fifth graders (his students) would have a facilitated discussion. But the younger children should be asked to keep quiet at school to “protect” children whose parents didn’t want them to know.

Who wouldn’t want to protect their children from the horror of something like this? But the reality is, you can’t put a stop to the playground talk. Children will hear rumors and falsehoods, and then what? “They have to hear the truth from you,” Tia Horner, a child psychiatrist, told me. “Because if they don’t hear it from you, they fill it in, in their heads. And that is much, much worse.”

At the potluck today, the playground conversation did turn to Mr. W., and the stories that came up raised new questions for Brennan. I’m grateful that he is brave enough to ask them. I haven’t exactly figured out the right formula for discussing this with my children. I have misspoken and misstepped. I have wished I could hit rewind and use a different word. But there are messages I am sure of, ones that I have repeated over and over again, like “You can ask me anything,” “You can tell me anything” and “This is never, ever, ever a child’s fault.”

There is one other thing I’m certain of. Silence is not on our side with this one. It’s that very fear of speaking up that allows abuse to happen in the first place, to so many, many children. And if we can’t figure out how to talk to our children about sexual abuse, if we can’t even try, how can we ever expect them to talk to us?

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