Codes of Silence and Child Abuse Cover-Ups: The Sick Underbelly of Institutions in the US
By Nathalia Jaramillo, Truthout | News Analysis
Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach accused of child sexual abuse, leaves the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte, Pa., Dec. 13, 2011. (Photo: Jeff Swensen / The New York Times)
If the recent spate of news headlines about Catholic priest pedophiles and the media frenzy surrounding allegations against Jerry Sandusky and the Penn State cover-up are any indication, the United States is currently experiencing a child sex abuse epidemic. This is decidedly not the case. During the last decade, approximately 80,000 cases of child sexual abuse have been reported per annum.(i) We are not experiencing an outbreak of any kind, what the numbers indicate – and these are grossly underreported – is that child abuse is a systemic and widespread problem. The difference in perception lies in the fact that the public has shifted its gaze from individual offenders to once-trusted social institutions. The most recent case of abuse to reach the national and international media comes from one such institution, in this case Miramonte Elementary, the second-largest primary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, located in South Central Los Angeles.
Upon hearing the news about Miramonte, I experienced what any reader would: revulsion and anger toward the perpetrators of violent crimes against innocent children. Unlike most readers, however, the story would not go away as easily once I switched to another news screen. I worked at Miramonte Elementary as a grant administrator from 2002-2004 and later returned as an academic researcher to examine the cultural climate of the school site and the plight of mothers struggling to ensure a better educational environment for their children. I have maintained close ties to members of the community ever since.
Mark Berndt, the teacher at the center of the Miramonte scandal, is charged with at least 23 acts of lewd behavior that took place between 2005-2010, although emerging evidence suggests that he abused children as early as 1994.(ii) The details of his alleged criminal acts are well-documented: he engaged students in what has been referred to as a “tasting game,” blindfolding and feeding children cookies or a spoonful of sugar laced with his semen.(iii) He placed Madagascar cockroaches on students’ faces and captured the images on film. Police authorities have retrieved over 600 of Berndt’s photographs, the majority of which were processed at a drug store.(iv) Berndt worked at Miramonte for 32 years, allegedly violated the children during school hours and after-school programs, oftentimes behind his locked classroom door. Shortly after an employee who processed the film tipped off authorities to the disturbing images in January 2010, police removed Berndt from the classroom and the school district dismissed him.(v) But it was not until 13 months later that Berndt was formally charged and arrested for his abuse and that the wider community was informed of his criminal activity. Families initially responded with shock, then anger, and rightfully so. The school administration was quick to defend itself, citing police investigative protocol for its silence over the alleged abuse.
Days after Berndt’s arrest, criminal charges of lewd acts were brought against a second teacher at Miramonte. In the span of one week, two teachers were arrested and made their appearance in court to face criminal charges. The media hunkered down on school grounds with a petulant fervor to capture the ensuing chaos. Mothers and fathers took to the timeless act of protest to communicate their disdain over the school district’s withholding of information, and the Superintendent of Los Angeles Unified Schools, John Deasy, adopted unprecedented action toward the remaining school faculty and staff. Shortly after the second teacher’s arrest, Deasy held court at a nearby high school in a closed-door meeting with community members. He made a swift and broad-stroked decision: every single Miramonte staff member would have two days to pack up their belongings and shuffle out to a vacant school building nearby. Deasy spared no one in his judgment; the custodial and food services staffs have also been replaced. The slate was being wiped clean, so to speak, in an attempt to reinstate trust in the community. Deasy has declared that an investigation into the “culture of silence”(vi) at Miramonte is underway, presumably siphoning attention away from the complicity of the highest levels of school administration in said “silence” and narrowing the scope of investigation to the Miramonte faculty and staff.
In the Sandusky-Penn State scandal, we can speculate that big money, the elite brand name of the Penn State football team and the corporatization of higher education altogether had something to do with the “culture of silence” that provided a cover for Sandusky’s alleged crimes for over a decade.(vii) The interplay between power and wealth that spawned partly from Sandusky’s successful football career at Penn State and the threat of tainting the image of the iconic football league (and its godfather figurehead, Joe Paterno) may have driven officials to sweep the debacle under the bleachers. Add the arrogant sense of invisibility that men in power who commit crimes often evoke, or the ethos of “no snitching,” and we have the perfect balance for a cover-up. Similar arguments could be directed toward the Catholic clergy. Since 1984, when the first case of sexual abuse in the US received wide publicity, the clergy and in particular the Vatican establishment, has been the appropriate subject of critique for their perceived ambivalence and indeed, ineptitude for dealing with over 10,000 reported cases of child sexual abuse by 2003.(viii) The culture of “omerta,” – the Italian word for the Mafia’s code of silence(ix) – is a serious charge that has been voiced against the papal hierarchy, a claim that points to the Church’s preference to preserve its sacrosanct image over its obligation to uphold “truth … as the basis of justice.”(x) The issue, however, is more complex than an adhesion to “truth” or “justice” that theologians claim as the basis of Catholic doctrine. The issue is that the Vatican and its leadership claim “sovereign immunity in clerical sexual abuse cases in the United States.”(xi) The criminal charges and ensuing civil cases brought against the Church do not threaten religious doctrine alone; they challenge canonical law, raise questions about the immunity of the Vatican state and its financial liability in child sexual abuse cases.(xii)
In the case of Penn State football and the Vatican, we have two semi-autonomous institutions that have operated under the veil of omerta – silence – to protect their economic and social interests and “sovereignty.” The institutional causes and relations of “silence” in these child abuse cases reveal themselves rather effortlessly to the lay observer, but what can we deduce about an elementary school?
Investigations into child sexual abuse in schools are sparse and little is known about the protocols in place to secure children’s safety at the hands of adults who hold institutional power and authority over them. We do know, however, that pedophiles prey on the most vulnerable children of society,(xiii) presumably, in-part, because they intuit that their crimes will go unreported, that no one will “care” about the well-being of children who face the demands and difficulties of poverty; single-family households; or in the case of Miramonte, the challenges faced by a Latino/a population with a high proportion of immigrant families lacking “inalienable rights.” The mother volunteers with whom I worked during my tenure at Miramonte were referred to as “free laborers” and “burras” (mules) at the school site.(xiv) If this is how mothers were being treated, what could be said about the institutional climate toward their children?
Miramonte Elementary is located on the 68-hundredth block of South Central Los Angeles, in between the neighborhoods of Florence, Huntington Park and Compton. The neighborhood has shifted from a predominantly African-American working-class community, to a predominantly Latino/a demographic, home to immigrant entrepreneurs trying to make ends meet in the land of “great dreams,” the American Dream. A labyrinth of single-family homes, apartment units, duplexes and motels with monthly rental charges of $199 partitions Miramonte into enclaves. Old, unused railroad tracks cut through the neighborhood. West of the railroad tracks, families mostly live in the dilapidated apartment buildings and renovated motel rooms, while those on the east side live in predominantly single-family, semi-permanent residences.(xv)
Within a five-mile radius, a majority of the neighborhood children stumble through the educational pipeline, starting at Miramonte Elementary with a population of approximately 1,500 students, followed by a middle school with close to 2,500 students and a high school, taken over in 2010 by the state of California, with nearly 5,000 students in official attendance.
The City of Los Angeles has disassembled into opposing fragments of wealth and poverty, subordination and resistance. Over time, the result has been a parsing of individuals and groups in space, along lines that Greg Hise describes as “defined by race – ethnicity; by income, status and class; by gender – whether elective or imposed, formal or informal, legal or extralegal.” This has become the signature aspect of the “modern city under industrial capitalism.”(xvi) Miramonte Elementary is found in the interstices of these opposing fragments, struggling over the years to meet its academic “benchmarks,” and undergoing a relentless assault of school reform efforts and changes in administration that keep the school community in a constant state of tension and unpredictability.
My own work at Miramonte was about understanding these nuances within a school culture that tended to reduce its practices to the modalities of standardization, testing and accountability vis-à-vis authoritarian practices that are now rife across the US public school system. The “human factor” is largely left out of the script in these schooling environments that serve the most disenfranchised sectors of society, communities that are overwhelmingly segregated by poverty, race and ethnicity. The politics of exclusion, repressive practices of dehumanization (i.e. violence toward the innocent) and the commodification of children and families form part of an institutional environment that does not begin with school administrations alone. The mandates toward narrowing the scope and function of educational practice and delivery begin with Congress and State Legislatures, make their way down to mayoral office and school district superintendents and become translated into everyday actions at the level of the school site. The overriding logic of schooling is not only overwritten by powerful interest groups that lobby for greater profit margins in the practice of turning education into a neoliberal treasure chest, but it is also largely the residual effect of the history and continuing legacy of how aggrieved populations come to relate to one another, to the authoritative social strata and, in turn, how powerfully dominant institutions relate to them.
Miramonte is the space where institutional and state power and communities meet; it is the terrain where human relationships to “nation” and broader society are constructed as one power (institutional) attempts to communicate with other/s (communal power). The “colony” of the people is juxtaposed to the proprietary authority of the state. It would be an error in judgment for anyone to admonish the community, the mothers and fathers, for the acts of violence committed against their children. Families have attempted to speak on behalf of the children, to claim their voice and exert their power, in spite of social conditions that prima facie position them as outsiders to the dominant social strata – immigration status, English proficiency, or labor demands on their time – but have been systematically silenced, disempowered and disregarded. The act of schooling has become a rote exercise in and of itself and is mired by damaging belief systems held about the rights or humanity of the poor. When we examine the interrelatedness – the entanglement – among poverty, race, ethnicity, immigration status, English language proficiency, and the other “indexes” of sociability that position groups on a hierarchical scale of human valorization, then it should be very clear why the children of Miramonte have been vulnerable to abuse. And perhaps more importantly, why the abuse went “unnoticed” for so long. Berndt was not the first teacher to sexually abuse Miramonte children; he was preceded by Ricardo Guevara, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for molesting kindergarten girls in 2004.(xvii)
Charol Shakeshaft, a leading researcher on “educator sexual abuse”(xviii) estimates that the physical sexual abuse of students in US schools is 100 times greater than abuse by Catholic priests.(xix) Some of the largest school districts in the nation pay out millions of dollars in settlements every year for alleged abuse. The scandal at Miramonte sheds light on a profound crisis in US schools that will not go away with a quick fix (i.e., replacing the staff) or by putting in place new policies to identify or report child sexual abuse. Further, the teachers, staff and families who are innocent of any wrongdoing should not be condemned in the process. The codes of silence in Miramonte and schools elsewhere are actively produced across institutional hierarchies, enmeshed within the overriding logic of profit over people and embedded in profound frames of intelligibility that further subordinate the dispossessed. The culture of silence that Superintendent Deasy speaks about should be investigated. Unfortunately, his investigation will most likely focus on identifying the names of lackluster administrators or gaps in school policy that contributed to the Miramonte crisis. This should be a starting point, but from there, broader questions need to be asked about the overall cultural practices evident in school sites and further demands need to be made for the rights of the poor. Children’s vulnerability will not disappear, but we can effect change in our institutions through the act of critical self-reflection – drawing crucial connections between individual acts of abuse and systemic forms of dehumanization. Codes of silence are, after all, about the act of silencing.