We may be seeing something similar playing out in Norwood now.
Not that the original crime, an alleged assault by three middle/high school boys on a younger boy – inside a Norwood school bus parked outside the Pepsi Center in Denver during the Colorado State Wrestling Tournament in February – isn’t horrific enough. But the apparent effort by at least some Norwood School District officials to sweep the incident under the rug has made matters immeasurably worse.
As with a Washington scandal, it’s easy to understand why officials want to hide in a fortress of denial. This incident has been deeply embarrassing; it’s painful even to think about what allegedly happened, much less to talk about it in public. And there’s another factor: Because juveniles are involved, it’s been easy for school officials to think that handling the matter with discretion is in the best interests of all the children involved, alleged assailants and alleged victim alike.
And so a crime that was reported to school officials within hours of its happening was treated not as a crime at all, and was not reported to the police, as is required of school officials by state law. Instead, it was treated as a “boys will be boys” hazing or bullying incident, with the alleged assailants being punished with a short, in-school suspension.
If the victim’s family had been willing to go along with the strategy of minimizing the seriousness of the assault, the cover-up might have worked. To their credit, and a testament to their courage, they demanded justice for their son.
This insistence on justice and the Norwood District’s resistance to it has turned the assault into an occasion of reckoning for the entire community. Is the Norwood school system a place where hazing and bullying are condoned? Is there an inability to recognize that a rape is a crime?
The community’s frustration boiled over at recent meetings of the Norwood School Board, with much of the anger directed not at the boys who have now been charged by the Denver District Attorney with the assault, nor at the school officials who tried to prevent it from being referred to law enforcement officials, but instead at the victim and his family.
Much of this is unspoken or barely spoken, but it’s out there clear as day: First, denial that the incident even occurred as described. Then, dark suggestions that if it did happen, the victim was complicit. Then, a self-serving rationalization: the damage is done, so why can’t the victim and his family just suck it up and get over it already, without inflicting more damage on others by going to the police?
Now that the media and justice system are on it, you can’t blame the residents of the Norwood School District – and especially those with children in the schools – for fervently wishing it would all just go away. Of course, it’s too late for that. Now, after the failed cover-up, everyone is implicated.
The deep sense of personal embarrassment on display in Norwood is easy for anyone who ever attended a middle school or a high school to tap into. These are years of painful lessons in socialization, when we all are taught what it takes to fit into society, and what a heavy price we can pay when we fail to conform. Who among us was never a victim or a bully – or both? There are so many shades of grey in how this sometimes-brutal rite of passage to adulthood is navigated that it is easy for both adults and children to lose sight of when adolescent thoughtlessness and cruelty becomes hazing, or bullying – or worse.
And so adults ask themselves: Was it really so bad, what happened in the Norwood school bus, compared to what so many likely remember from their own adolescence?
Well, if you're spared the details, maybe not.
But if the details made public by the Denver District Attorney on Friday are true – that the victim was forcibly taken onto the parked bus, where his hands and ankles were taped and he was penetrated with a hard object – there is no question about it. It was criminal behavior.
Adding irony to insult, the alleged assault happened at the State Wrestling Tournament, where Norwood’s wrestling dynasty has so often made the community proud. One might imagine that organized wrestling, like other high school sports, is an appropriate way to channel masculine aggression into safe outlets, with hazing rookies a tradition only recently frowned upon. Yet it is widely acknowledged that similar incidents, clearly crossing any reasonable line, have occurred in Norwood in the recent past, making it impossible to shrug this one off – extreme as it evidently was – as an isolated incident.
And there’s the rub.
For students, parents, faculty and the administration there is shame in having known what happened in that school bus and, by their silence, having tacitly condoned it; there is equal shame in maintaining ignorance, as if it were possible to look the other way. Then, too, there is shame simply by association.
“There are so many good things about our school,” parents decried at the school board meeting (and I paraphrase). “We can’t allow this one incident to overshadow them all.”
That may be true, and yet a culture of hazing or bullying is no trivial matter. A violent assault is a serious crime. The community instinct to circle the wagons and deny that such allegations could be true only made a bad situation far worse. Now, the possibility there was an organized cover-up should be investigated.
Ultimately, for the Norwood school community, redemption lies in responsible adults’ recognizing this as a teaching moment, and for the entire community to learn from it. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be crystal clear now: Neither bullying nor hazing are OK. Even in a school where a culture of respect is well established, incidents will sometimes occur, because, yes, kids will be kids, and even kids are capable of criminal behavior.
That’s precisely when we should expect the adults who run the school to lead by example, and to do the right thing.