Trigger Warning for discussions of childhood sexual violence, sexual violence in schools, and rape denialism
A story of prolonged sexual abuse against children over 25 years shows the dangers of not believing sexual violence survivors who step forward with their stories. In Alabama, a now-retired elementary school teacher named Danny Acker (left) has been charged with four counts of first-degree sexual abuse against two female students under the age of 12. At the time of his arrest, the teacher allegedly confessed to molesting an astonishing 21 female students throughout his career.
Making a horrific story even worse, the school board knew he had a history of sexual abuse allegations all the way back in 1993, were given the opportunity then to remove him from his position of authority, and chose instead to reinstate his job as a fourth-grade teacher. Indeed, they say that given the opportunity, they’d do it again.
Two longtime Alabama school board leaders are defending the panel’s decision in 1993 to reinstate an elementary school teacher who was accused of molesting a student, even though the teacher is now charged with more abuse.
School board President Lee Doebler and Vice President Steve Martin said students, parents and community leaders encouraged the Shelby County Board of Education to return 4th grade teacher Danny Acker to his Alabaster classroom, and the board agreed 5-0. Doebler and Martin are the only board members who remain from those days, and both said they did the best they could with the information they had.
“Looking back, given the evidence we had I would have made the same vote,” Doebler said. “I wish we had some evidence, but unfortunately, we didn’t.” …
Shelby County’s superintendent placed Acker on leave in October 1992 when a student accused him of touching her improperly at her home. A county grand jury reviewed the case and did not return an indictment.
Martin said the superintendent recommended Acker’s dismissal. The school board held a hearing in February 1993 that lasted more than eight hours and then voted unanimously to keep him.
Martin said there were no witnesses and no physical evidence. He said the abuse was alleged to have occurred during babysitting rather than at the school.
Doebler, who was also the board president in 1993, said many students, past and present, and their parents turned out as character witnesses to support Acker, and the board was heavily influenced by the grand jury’s decision to take no action.
“There was no evidence presented to us to indicate the grand jury was incorrect,” he said.
Martin said Acker’s father, longtime County Commissioner Dan Acker, made no effort to influence the decision. “The dad did not call anyone or discuss it with anyone,” he said.
The tragedy here is not only that so many girls were sexually victimized in ways that can never be erased, but also that when shown quite dramatically and horrifyingly the error of their methods, those with the power to have stopped this abuser still do not see the inherent flaw in their system.
When a young girl reported having been sexually abused by a popular and trusted adult male teacher, the school board failed to treat her testimony with the respect that it deserved. Instead, they sided with power. When given the choice between the word of a young girl and the word of an adult man who wielded authority over her, they chose the adult man. When reflecting on the consequences of potentially making the wrong decision, they decided that an innocent man losing his job would have been a greater travesty of justice than countless vulnerable children being placed at the mercy of a predator. They sided with adults’ rights at the expense of children’s rights, with men’s rights at the expense of girls’ rights. They sided with historically and presently white supremacist and patriarchal standards of “evidence” and justice without thinking twice. And then they appealed to our sense of “fairness” to claim that this is the way it ought to be.
With Acker’s reinstatement based largely on the grand jury’s decision, this should be a lesson — though only one among many — on the gross unreliability of the criminal justice system as a reference point for an individual’s true innocence or guilt. At the same time as this system harasses men of color unrelentingly for drug and property crimes, it ignores the violent crimes of white men against women and girls on the basis of their “reputations” as socially valuable1 members of the community. It should also be yet another lesson as to how the criminal justice system decides when harm has been committed and when community safety has been achieved, as to what exactly the criminal justice system and those systems modeled after it values.
A man’s right to employment and good name were given primacy over the right of girls to have a learning environment safe from sexual terrorism. Indeed, his privacy was likely given extreme concern, as well — in their defense, the school board does not mention any effort to determine if other victims existed, to encourage parents to talk to their children about their teacher, to urge other survivors to come forward.
Even with so many victims, it should come as absolutely no surprise that no others reported on their own. It is extremely common for victims to not speak of childhood sexual abuse until they are adults. Our social silence around sexuality, consent, and interpersonal violence almost ensures that children will not have the vocabulary or the resources to speak of what is happening at the time that it is happening. Children, like all victims of sexual abuse, are also likely to blame themselves; indeed, it is from society that they learn these messages. Those children weren’t wrong in their choices. A grand jury failed to indict him, a community united behind him, a school board chose to reinstate him and put him in the position to abuse further. If his victims feared that they would not be believed, they were probably right.
In 25 years, of at least 21 students, until now only one of these victims had the resources to come forward with her story. It is an indictment of this culture that she had to stand alone, because for 20 years no other victims were given the tools to stand with her. It is an even greater indictment that even when she did have the resources to speak of the violence committed against her, she was not believed. Indeed, an entire community rallied together to call this molested little girl a liar.
We teach children to tell us if they have been the victim of a bad touch (and the consider our work on their continued safety done). But we do not mean it. We do not mean it at all.
Throughout this story is a sustained denial of how power and privilege works. While Acker’s longtime County Commissioner father may not have made any phone calls on his son’s behalf, that doesn’t render his influence over the decision a moot point. Those with true influence need not necessarily flex it in an active way. People simply understand that there will be consequences if those with sizable power and influence are not given the deference usually afforded to them. Further, community members are more likely to stand up in their favor. The school board members defending their decision would have us believe that the great turnout for ACker has nothing to do with his family’s position within the community. But it would extend beyond mere gullibility into willful ignorance to truly accept that as the case. Acker’s family’s status can no more be divorced from the response to his abuse than can his straight white maleness; in a society so invested in upholding hegemonic power, all are considered short-hands for innocence.
Now Acker has been arrested and charged, long after his easy access to a large pool of victims has been removed. He may be convicted, though even with an alleged confession, there is absolutely no guarantee. Best case scenario, he will be punished for his irreversible violence, and that will be considered justice. And yet, it would have been commonly considered an injustice 20 years ago to believe a girl who said she had been abused, to have prevented the opportunity for much of that violence to have ever been committed.
- read: straight white male ↩