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The Spectrum: My high school teacher sexually harassed his students. Students took his side.

Melania Hidalgo, Op-Ed Contributor

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This essay is part of The Spectrum, a forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email spectrum@dailynorthwestern.com.

When I was 17 years old, my middle-aged boarding school teacher — married at the time with two children — told me he had feelings for me. We were standing at the heart of our rural campus in the plaza so many students ran across from their dorms to class. “I can’t stop thinking about you,” he whispered to me as schoolmates and faculty walked around us. I don’t remember my reaction, just the feeling of hope that somebody had overheard, that I wasn’t alone.

This isn’t the all-too-common story about a high school student falling prey to their adult educator. This is a cautionary tale of herd mentality: a sinister unfolding of events that drove even the fiercest advocates of justice, fairness and feminism to abandon their values when it was most critical. The invisible village walls of my academic institution made a perfect case study for how deeply willful ignorance and groupthink could come at the expense of one person’s safety. We were 180 kids from different countries, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities. Yet, after I came forward to the administration following a year of sexual harassment, a singular notion spread like wildfire across dozens of former peers: I was the perpetrator, he was the victim.

Six months earlier, I had been in this same spot with him, eagerly setting up a time to meet for general advising, unaware of what was to come. He was the one person students always came to for advice, the cult figure I’ll refer to as “X.” He would sit with students during lunch, speak uninhibitedly about his personal life, crack sexually-charged jokes and offer unconditional support to anyone who sought it outside the classroom. He was everyone’s favorite — even to those who weren’t in his class.

The concept of fraternizing with teachers is largely frowned upon, but our school was different; we were assigned teachers as mentors. Having coffee down the street or attending group dinners at their homes was common. Only this time, when we had agreed to meet at a nearby cafe, X pulled up in his car. “Get in,” he said with a welcoming smile. Forty minutes later we arrived to a nearby city, and he led me to a candle-lit restaurant. He ordered us both wine, and then divulged his first confession: “I’ve always wanted to take photos of you,” he said. I deflected, expressing urgency to return before the 11 p.m. curfew. On the way home, he stopped the car at a scenic view of the sea. There, he placed his hand on my inner thigh.

For months, X contacted me with a personal email through which he insisted I exclusively address him, and sent texts to my number that he got from the student database. Soon enough, drunken messages began to resemble thinly veiled threats: “Why don’t you like me? Most girls like me.” “You better make this up to me.” The less I engaged, the more I would feel the consequences in class: he’d publicly humiliate me for being late, berate me for turning in an incomplete assignment and issue degrading responses to any questions I asked.

I decided my only choice to smooth things over was to see him again. He invited me to dinner at his home — though uneasy, I knew I could at least leave at any time. It was a familiar setting: more candles, more wine. He began to press me about my sexual life. “You must have every boy in school crazy for you,” he said, “Have you ever had someone? I love that idea: ‘having’ someone.’” When I made an excuse to leave, he became agitated and pulled out his photography equipment. “I had other plans for tonight,” he said. He shut the door as I walked toward it, agreeing to let me go on the condition that I look at his previous ‘work.’ In his bedroom, he revealed dozens of photos of scantily clad and naked models. I firmly told him I needed to leave. As he walked me to his gate, he pulled me in and sucked on my earlobe before whispering goodbye. After that, I started skipping class.

My avoidance caught up with me: Prospective universities notified me that certain letters of recommendation had been withdrawn citing “lack of honesty and integrity from the student.” With my future at stake, I felt I only had one choice: to come forward. I spent hours thinking of every reason not to. I knew X was adored and idolized, and I knew there was a chance he could harm me. But I also knew that if he was capable of this behavior, I couldn’t have been the first, and I certainly wouldn’t be the last.

The next day, I sent my principal the dozens of emails and messages I had sent and received from X over the course of the year, along with a photograph I had discretely taken of the dinner table he had set for us. Effective immediately, X was suspended pending an investigation, during which he was prohibited from contacting any students. I thought the worst was over — I couldn’t have been more wrong.

What followed was a grassroots crusade by my peers to destroy my credibility and vindicate their teacher. X had broken the terms of his suspension, telling a select group of students that I had been madly in love with him, that I had stripped naked in his office to get exam answers and that I had threatened to accuse him of sexual harassment if he didn’t return my advances.

I woke up one morning to dozens of posters taped across school buildings with fabricated quotes attributed to me. I found notes in my mail cubby calling me a “lying wh-re.” There had been a Facebook group created against me, as well as a WhatsApp chat where dozens had joined to organize their efforts. “She’s a manipulative bitch who wants to ruin X’s life because he rejected her; she’s a terrible person,” one message read, “There’s not a single doubt in my mind that she’s lying and he’s innocent,” another followed. I had rarely spoken to any of these individuals — they knew nothing about me. One day, as I sat in the local café doing work, my phone and that of everyone else’s started buzzing with notifications: emails.

Addressed to all the school’s alumni (about 3000 people), they came in like a barrage of knives, all with the same ending: “In the lack of incontestable incriminating evidence, we ask that X be declared innocent,” read the final lines, after a brief paragraph detailing how integral X had been to their positive experience at the school. One message suggested that in the “unlikely” case this were true, the situation pointed to a lack of psychological support at the school for teachers. Others said it was unfair to do this so close to the final exams. I will never forget the wave of “boos” that echoed as I crossed the stage at my graduation — a moment I had fought so hard to reach at an event many had threatened to boycott due to X’s absence.

I should note that most of these emails were sent by women: women who now share articles on fourth-wave feminism, who attend “believe survivors” marches with photos of themselves in pussy hats. Women who majored in gender studies and write diatribes about the perils of silencing victims. Women who, five years later, after three others came forward following my allegations against X, have not contacted me.

Of course, I had an abundance of “incontestable incriminating evidence.” Yet still, in the face of cruel and orchestrated bullying, I disclosed none of it. Those with unfounded opinions were not entitled to that proof. They were not entitled to my experience, my fear, my desperation, my sense of powerlessness and solitude. I could have given the names of other women I knew of who had also suffered at X’s hands — but their stories weren’t mine to tell, just like mine wasn’t theirs to chastise.

The choices we make as young adults are often the wrong ones; we learn, we grow, we develop. I do not wish for a flood of apologies, as I have already forgiven everyone involved. But we must never excuse our lack of maturity for the vilification and endangerment of an individual. I walked the halls of that school with stoicism, never caving in to the emotions my peers fiercely sought to provoke. The bullying, the mocking and the smearing were not the harm. The entitlement of interfering with an investigation, the mob-fueled idea of baseless certainty — that was the harm.

My evidence was my bullet-proof vest; I could take all the attacks knowing they did not matter, that I had physical proof of what happened to me. But, as we know now, some women aren’t so lucky. Believing is crucial, especially when it’s hard. Especially when the person accused is beloved in their community. Because more often than not, that universal charm and respectability is the very tool they use to prey on the vulnerable, and their strongest defense if a victim speaks out. I implore all of you reading this, particularly all of the women who are increasingly vocal on feminist issues, to reflect on your past complicity in the silencing of a weakened voice, or the demonization of a potential survivor. We know how to do better in the future, but in order to do so, we must confront our past.

Melania Hidalgo is a Medill senior. She can be contacted at melaniahidalgo2019@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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