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Riverdale Press: Dealing With Sexual Trauma

posted by HM Action at 2013-04-03 18:47:00

Dealing with sexual trauma

By Dr. Harold J. Bursztajn and Dr. Nina Y. Freund
Posted 4/3/13
We applaud your March 28 editorial “Acknowledge sexual abuse.” We would like to elaborate on some of the details of the school’s response and emphasize how ultimately it has re-victimized the individuals involved and interfered with much-needed healing for them and the community.

Before the original article went to press, the head of school referred to the well-documented, multiple reports of sexual abuse as “allegations,” and stated that Horace Mann could not reply to specifics for “privacy reasons and based upon advice of counsel.” If, instead, the school had stated that it planned to order an immediate independent investigation, it could have sent a message to victims that their reports deserved thorough, honest examination. The victims would have felt heard, a necessary first step for healing. 
A subsequent letter from the head of school noted: “Words cannot describe how sad and upset I am at the thought of any harm coming to a member of our community while attending Horace Mann School.” The letter continued, “It is also clear that there are two schools to tend to: one facing forward with a lifetime of wonderful memories taking shape, and one with students well past college-age seeking support and leadership beyond what a traditional alumni office offers.” 
Later when a former Horace Mann teacher and school chaplain confessed publicly to having sexually abused several students, the school offered no apologies and reminded the community that its “primary fiduciary responsibilities and legal obligations are to the school today.” These words suggested that the victims and those who supported them were being blamed, if not for the abuses they suffered, then for asking the school for something it claimed it couldn’t provide. Addressing the victims’ needs and facing the facts of what happened in the past was equated with harming the present school.
An article that appeared soon after in the school’s student newspaper referred to “the dark past of our school.” Clearly, the current students themselves crave a coherent narrative that allows for healing. The quick fix of the “past is the past” not only harms the past victims, but also should raise concerns for current students, parents and teachers, who know that a “don’t ask, don’t tell” message increases the risk for recurrence. Current students know that they will soon become “past” as well.
Researchers at the University of Oregon have established empirical support for the idea that the lack of supportive institutional response is associated with worse functioning and more problems among survivors. The study by Smith and Freyd is aptly titled: “Dangerous Safe Havens: Institutional Betrayal Exacerbates Sexual Trauma.” Validation comes when an individual knows that he or she has been accurately heard, that the experience was real and that resulting feelings are justified. Victims can feel further empowered by observing that making their suffering public reduces the risk of others being victimized.
With real transparency and an independent investigation, a school can provide a narrative and deliver a public and heartfelt apology while avoiding splitting. By moving forward as one community, and considering the interests of the victims of the past as being complementary rather than conflictual with the community of the present, healing can proceed, prevention can be planned and trust can be rebuilt.

Dr. Harold J. Bursztajn is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School and Dr. Nina Y. Freund is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and a Horace Mann alumna.,52239?page=2&

posted at: 2013-04-03 18:47:00, last updated: 2013-04-03 18:51:33

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