When teachers sexually abuse students
Editor’s Note: Sexual abuse is a difficult topic but an important one for educators to understand when it comes to the students they teach. As a warning, the following guest post may cause distress for those who have suffered similar abuse. You can read more about the Quest program sexual abuse controversy referenced in this post by clicking here.
A guest post by Jennifer Fraser
I was halfway up the rock face when I suddenly couldn’t find any hold for my hand or my foot. I looked down and it was a long way. Of course I was roped in. This was a school-sponsored outing and at the top of the climb were my teachers who were holding the ropes. I was wearing a helmet. I was completely protected, but I couldn’t go up and I couldn’t go down and started to panic. My legs started to shake uncontrollably. Above, the students and teachers could see I was in trouble. And one teacher yelled down at me:
“If you give me a blow job, I’ll help you up.”
I was fifteen and didn’t know what a “blow job” was. I knew it was something sexual and was embarrassed that I didn’t know what it meant. It made me feel ashamed and ignorant at the same time
Now the interesting question is: why did I not tell this story to my parents?
There are many reasons and hopefully in shedding light on this dark part of my life, I can empower parents to watch for telltale signs of abuse and I can encourage students to speak up.
The problem with reporting on the men that sexually abused me, and so many students in the Quest program at Prince of Wales School in Vancouver, was that they were so popular. They had cult-like status at the school. They were charming and extremely funny. They were also leaders in terms of health and nutrition. They were anti-drinking and drugs and therefore greatly respected by parents and quite likely their colleagues. They were counter-culture at a time when kids were questioning their parents’ values. These teachers seemed incredibly cool to us. They were early environmentalists and we worked hard as teens to save the wilderness alongside them.
It’s important for all those who want to protect kids from abuse to know that oftentimes abusers are very popular; they are so good; they are so sought-after. They’re attractive. That’s how they get away with years of abuse. It’s this disguise they are highly adept at wearing that lets them unleash years of soul-destroying abuse on children in their power. They hold the ropes and the child believes they want to keep them safe; the child believes that they care. Abusers convince everyone, probably even themselves, that they act out of “love.” They never ask themselves why the love they offer causes so many kids profound suffering or why it’s against the law.
If adults can’t recognize abusers, children are even less likely to realize that what’s happening is abuse and that it is doing damage of a kind they can’t see.
If I had fallen from that rock face and broken my arm, I would have been rushed to hospital and cared for. But what happened on that rock face that day broke something in my mind and in my spirit. The pain far outweighed a snapped bone, but there was no cast to envelop the break and allow it to heal.
On a bus ride back from one of the wilderness trips, one of the teachers, Tom Ellison, held me down for a stretch of time and he licked my ear in a provocative sexual way in front of all the kids. It revolted me and made me afraid. He was twice my size and strong. It’s the only time in my life a man has held me down and forced himself upon me. The news stories and the court case about this teacher are packed full of such incidents and most of them far, far worse.
While I was scarred by my experience in Quest, I did not end up having sex with these teachers and am profoundly thankful for that. I’ve often wondered how I escaped.
I think there were a couple of reasons. The first one was that I was extremely naïve. As a fifteen year old girl, it never occurred to me that middle-aged men would have any sexual interest in kids. It literally did not cross my mind and so when advances were made, I just felt completely confused.
From the age of four on, children have it hammered into them that teachers deserve trust and respect. To suddenly go against those repeated lessons, is like telling a child raised in a religion that the God they have always worshipped is in fact evil. The mind cannot fathom it.
As a teenager, I was working hard not to look like a loser in front of my peers who all seemed to love these teachers. I was interested in boys my own age and thrilled at the notion that some of the grade 12 boys were interested in me. They were two years older and seemed to belong to a whole other category of sophistication. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea that a man who was married and had three children and was middle-aged actually wanted to have sexual relations with me or any other teenage girl. It did not make sense.
Dean Hull approached me at the first Quest dance when a slow song came on. I couldn’t even imagine dancing closely with him and held him at bay as it was just so strange and awkward. He proceeded to humiliate me in front of the other kids saying that I was “frigid” and laughing at how I was trying not to dance right up against him. I was deeply embarrassed and finally slow danced with him. Just writing this makes me feel physically sick.
Adults have enormous power over children.
Their knowledge and experience makes them able to influence those who have so few years on the planet and are just learning. It’s counter-intuitive, but watch out for teachers who are devoted to their students, the ones who appear to be so passionate that the majority of their time—even holidays—is dedicated to students. Adults who don’t spend much time in adult relationships and say that it’s because they’re so intensely passionate about their wilderness program or their theatre production or their sports team should concern parents and administrators and be watched carefully. Of course there are dedicated teachers out there who simply do care about their students and devote their time because education is a calling for them. It’s just that abusers are smart and so they imitate educational goodness to cover up for their real motivations.
After the traumatizing, embarrassing dance with Dean Hull, I didn’t say anything to my parents. If anything, I walked away from that dance feeling like a failure. I had displeased my teacher. I had done something wrong. I had not acted appropriately. Why would I share that with my parents?
I was forced to slow dance with Dean Hull, but I wasn’t forced into having sex with him and for that I am deeply thankful and I feel extremely sad for the teenage girls in my grade who ended up having sex with Dean Hull, Stan Callegari and Tom Ellison. I know how much these men have messed up my brain and I can only imagine what they’ve done to others who suffered far more than I did.
I think there’s another reason I escaped the worst from these abusers and it was because of my parents. They knew something was wrong. And I encourage parents: trust your instincts, talk to your kids, ask them questions, watch for signs of mental illness like eating disorder, cutting, depression. I suffered from all three of those conditions. I was voted “worst dressed girl” in grade 12, but I did not explain to anyone—even myself—that I was wearing sweat pants everyday and baggy shirts so that the teachers would leave me alone and not notice me.
In the summer of grade 11, before I went on a month long trip to the Yukon with these abusers, my mom met with them. She told them my dad was a lawyer and if anything happened to me on this trip, they would do everything in their power to ensure the teachers were held accountable. I suffered terribly on that trip, but I was not the girl who shared a tent or a bed with these teachers. That fate was reserved for two other teenage girls and I thank my parents for making those teachers afraid of what would happen if they abused me.
Schools are so careful to supply students with helmets and ropes, to keep them physically safe.
But they need to work harder on protecting children from abuse that plays on children’s emotions and uses them as a way to gain entry into a child’s body and mind. Schools must teach children what abuse from a teacher looks like, what it sounds like, what it does to the brain and heart and soul.
Kids need to know that if a teacher or coach abuses them, it does very serious, long-lasting damage.
No one told me that when I was a child.
Jennifer Fraser has a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto and is a published writer. She is presently teaching creative writing and International Baccalaureate literature classes at an independent school in British Columbia.