Monday, April 8, 2013

Protecting Children by Punishing Whistleblowers

Carol Buchanan, a former Moraga School District teacher (in the SF Bay Area) was told by students in the 1990s that science teacher, Dan Witters, had been sexually abusing them. She reported it to school officials, but was ignored and punished, Cheryl Hurd reported last week. While she was never fired, Buchanon claims the district did strongly urge her to take a “leave of absence,” which she ultimately did, retiring after a 25-year career.

Last year, University of California, Berkeley swim coach, Kristen Cunnane, came forward saying she was abused by Witters and another teacher. Cunnane later release the following statement: “I can’t believe how many people at the school knew about the sexual abuse and how many warnings the district ignored. To find out that there was someone at the school actually trying to help us and that she got punished for it is incredible.”

While it is tragic that so many children were thrown to the wolves by administrators who were either too lazy to do the right thing or too concerned with covering up the potential bad PR, it should no longer come as a surprise, either. Indeed, it is relatively common for large institutions to value their own reputations over the safety of children (and the law). Consider the way in which the Catholic Church, at virtually all levels of its hierarchy, has protected accused priests. This case is also strikingly similar to the case of Mark Berndt, in LAUSD, who had been reported by numerous parents, and allowed to remain in the classroom for decades, before finally being arrested last year. In Berndt’s case, not only did the district fail to investigate thoroughly the prior claims, but it also punished innocent teachers, by firing the entire staff at Miramonte Elementary school, even though only two of its teachers had been accused of abuse.

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