The arrest last week of former Babylon Junior-Senior High School teacher Timothy Harrison on charges of raping a 15-year-old student is just one indicator of a festering problem in the school district.
More than 20 victims have reported a range of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and other misconduct against 10 teachers, and an environment that enabled it, to the Crime Victim Center. The fall 2021 resignation of Babylon High School teacher Jeffrey Kenney, who was facing disciplinary charges and forfeited his teaching license as part of a settlement agreement, empowered former students, parents, and community members to publicly speak out about their experiences and to seek support and services from the center.
The students, including some current students, alleged their former teachers committed such crimes and offenses as forcible sexual assault, sexual abuse, forcible touching, sexual harassment, inappropriate personal and sexual relationships, and endangering the welfare of a child. Although criminal and civil statutes of limitations have been extended in the past, with exception, most of the reported crimes fall outside of the statute of limitations and are not prosecutable.
By accepting, normalizing and minimizing this behavior, the school district facilitated the creation and perpetuation of a culture that emboldened a handful of teachers as far back as 1980. Systemic failures by administrators in taking reports and dealing with victims and their parents led to a lack of accountability and helped fuel what is now known as a ‘rape culture’ within the district.
Instead of holding specific teachers accountable for misconduct, and holding administrators accountable for not following reporting protocols and taking action, the district often dismissed, blamed, or scared off children or their parents, dissuading them from bringing charges. The common thread: a lack of information available to and support for the reporting children and their parents.
Generally, when a child makes a complaint against a teacher in a public school district, the district is represented by its attorney and the teacher by a lawyer typically appointed by the union. But the reporting child and parent do not have a victim advocate to protect their rights — unlike in the criminal justice process when a child is entitled by law to have a victim advocate present throughout the proceedings. This needs to change immediately.
As the state attorney general and Suffolk County Police Department investigate, the Crime Victim Center is crafting a program to provide information and advocacy support that children and parents need to understand and start the reporting process — in Babylon as a pilot, and expanding to other districts after implementation.
Over the past two decades, society has experienced monumental shifts in understanding childhood trauma, sexual victimization, and how institutions try to limit their liability by systematically silencing victims. The exposure of cover-ups by the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America, momentum generated by the #MeToo movement, and legislative recognition of the horrific damage done to victims with the passage of the Child Victims Act in New York and similar laws across the nation, have affirmed that our society will no longer accept a culture that facilitates the sexual victimization of women and children.
What happened at Babylon Junior-Senior High School will be the catalyst for change to bring accountability, procedural improvements, and new laws to our public schools to ensure that reports of misconduct by professionals in a position of trust are never dismissed or mishandled.
This guest essay reflects the views of Laura A. Ahearn, executive director of the Crime Victims Center.