No more hiding sexual abuse

Joe Viviano

The fire raging at Michigan State University is unique in scope and in the overdue public accounting that is now underway. But for untold thousands of sexual abuse victims, the stories of preventable abuse and re-victimization by a callous bureaucracy are all too familiar.

They know how hard it was to gather their courage; to bring their pain to a trusted authority figure. They know how it felt to be dismissed; to see justice trampled in the name of self-preservation. They know how this destroys faith.

In 2014, I met with the parents of a 13-year-old, autistic child named Joe. They told me Joe had been molested at Novi Middle School by a much larger, emotionally impaired student. Joe described approximately 100 incidents during classes, the vast majority occurring when a teacher had placed Joe and the other student alone in a small office next to her classroom. The other student admitted that he and Joe were regularly placed in this office and that numerous incidents of sexual touching had occurred.

In the early days of this story, Joe’s parents still trusted the district to do the right thing. They immediately pulled Joe out of school and went to the principal and superintendent. Not only was Joe’s cry for help dismissed, the school proposed to put Joe back into the exact same class schedule with the other student.

After this appalling response, we conducted our own investigation and sent a detailed letter to the Novi School Board, telling them everything we knew. Their response to the horrific allegations outlined in the letter? Silence.

With no other recourse, we filed a federal lawsuit. The public record is vast. There is no room to tell the whole story of what we uncovered; only enough to give you a small sense of the soul-crushing course charted by the Novi School District.

The district had ignored its obligation to train teachers and staff on sexual abuse issues. The school secured video of a sexual touching incident, but had it deleted without showing it to Joe’s parents or the police. The school conducted an “investigation” of Joe’s allegations that did not include interviews of Joe or the other student. The teacher accused of placing the children in the office together said she was not interviewed either. After this “investigation,” the principal informed Joe’s parents in a letter that there was “no evidence” his allegations were true.

Incredibly, the district defended the case with the profoundly disturbing argument that Joe consented to what happened. Joe is mentally disabled, was 12 when this began, and was a foot shorter and 100 pounds lighter than the other student (who, we learned, had a lengthy disciplinary history). Joe’s testimony was heartbreaking. Notwithstanding all of this, a federal judge actually had to admonish the District: “I don’t want to hear the word consent…It is irrelevant to what we’re talking about here…”

The judge concluded the district’s conduct was “very inappropriate.”

After three years of traumatic litigation, the district settled. The amount of the settlement is confidential. Joe never returned to his school. His family will be in recovery for many years. They still hold out hope that positive change will come from their sacrifice.

Superintendent Steve Matthews testified that no one was disciplined and no policy had changed as a result of what happened. The district never acknowledged fault or publicly apologized. Putting a hypocritical lid on this story, Matthews recently penned an editorial in the Novi News entitled “We need to listen in order to give our students their voices,” decrying the fact that adults did not listen to the MSU sexual abuse victims. This is where the matter sits.

What can be done? There are no easy answers. Beyond any policy prescription, more good people need to stand up and do the right thing, regardless of the perceived cost.

In the wake of its own sexual abuse crisis over a decade ago, the Catholic Church adopted numerous reforms, including banning confidential settlements; mandatory training of staff and parents; immediate removal of any person credibly accused of abuse; payment of counseling expenses; an abuse hotline; and a review board to independently investigate allegations. Our public school students deserve no less.

In the daily headlines about MSU, we have a powerful reminder of the price of inaction. This latest sexual abuse crisis must not pass without a tangible commitment from our public institutions that transparency, and not silence, will be the order of the day.

Joe Viviano is the managing member of Viviano Law.