How you report a story or how you read it makes all of the difference in the world
Dear Engaged Bystander: If you have not yet heard, the NY Times (and a number of other publications) wrote a story about a horrific case of an 11 year old child being raped by as many as 18 boys and young men. The case has rocked the lives of a small community in Texas.
An elementary school student told her teacher that she had seen a lurid cellphone video that included one of her classmates. This brave disclosure (and the teacher who listened to a young girl’s concern) led the police to an abandoned trailer, more evidence and, eventually, to a roundup of 18 young boys and young men (12-27 years old) on charges of participating in the gang rape of a young girl in an abandoned trailer home.
The controversy has sparked petitions and commentary on the way this particular case was covered. The NY Times story has been widely criticized for the lack of sensitivity (e.g., quoting neighbors on their concern for the young boys without mentioning any trauma that the victim may be experiencing) and for it’s general tone of victim blaming.
I want to be clear that any 11 year old who is raped (and brutally raped in this case) needs ALL of our support. We need to be sending a clear message to the victim that she did nothing wrong and that she did nothing to deserve this kind of treatment. So the comments quoted in this article about the way she dressed (e.g., she dressed like a 20 year old) and about her mother’s lack of supervision are painful to read and just wrong.
But I also think that the current debate is missing a lot.
First, there is nothing in the original article or any of the blogs that commends the child who reported the videos and the teacher who believed her. There are so many cases where people know something happened but no one speaks up. There are so many cases where the adult does not take a report seriously. Both are incredible and give everyone in the case a chance to get help. There is also nothing that commends the police because of their immediate response and following the evidence. Second, I do not have a problem with asking the question about the role and the lack of supervision by the mother of this 11 year old. But this is a small town and many people could have seen the wandering of an 11 year old, unsupervised and stepped in to help. Where were the neighbors and the faith communities and the child protective services and friends and neighbors? I also believe that if the NY Times decides to put in a quote about the victim, there should be the same question asked of the mothers of the middle school boys who were there as well. Where were the mothers and fathers of the middle school boys who raped an 11 year old? And last, I do think we need to begin to voice our concern for the victim AND for the boys who allegedly raped the 11 year old. Each of those adolescents need help and support from their families to acknowledge the harm they caused and support to help them turn their lives around.
My hope is that the 11 year old and her mother are getting the help and the support they deserve. I also hope that the boys and the young men get the help they need as well as being held accountable for this horrific crime. And last, I hope that this becomes a wake-up call for all of our communities, including Cleveland Texas. The next time someone sees a child or teen at risk -- a vulnerable child on the street or a group of young men in their late 20’s hanging out with middle school boys -- it is time to say something or do something. We all should learn from this.