When a Grand Forks high school teacher was charged with having sex with a minor, I expected the typical response, which included attacks on the teacher. I even expected some to defend him.
What I didn’t expect was that some would attack the girl involved in the case — she hasn’t been identified by the media, as is practice for minors involved in sex cases. Some say she should be in as much trouble as the teacher for letting it happen, or she could have said no. Others placed blame on teenagers and the way they dress. One person said since she is not a child but an adolescent — she was between the ages 15 and 18 when the alleged acts of sex occurred — she should be held accountable for her choices.
As a journalist, my mindset is not to jump to conclusions and don’t assume what happened. If anything, I tend to argue for the defendant, as I was taught everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
But that shouldn’t suggest that we should blame the accuser, especially when it comes to sex-related cases.
I can understand where those comments are coming from. West Fargo teacher Aaron Knodel was accused of having a sexual relationship with his student. After a lengthy legal battle, the charges against Knodel were dropped.
The case made those who followed it think twice about students who accuse teachers of crimes. Knodel had so much support from teachers, parents and students. Instead of demonizing him, many came to his aid to prove his innocence by saying he was a great teacher. And good for him that he had the support of so many.
However, support can be misguided and can come in the form of hate. Knodel’s accuser insisted after the trial was over that he was guilty. She and her family continued to protest the teacher’s reinstatement into the school system.
She certainly had the right to do so, though Knodel’s supporters were not happy about it. Some called her a liar and told her to stop dragging his name in the mud.
In the eyes of the law, Knodel is innocent and the case is closed. However, because of this case — and it’s not his fault — people are more likely to look at accusers with cautious and critical eyes.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise when people don’t want to believe the situation that Whalen finds himself in now. I’ve never met the man, but by many accounts, he is a beloved teacher and has a lot of support behind him, just as Knodel did. The public doesn’t want to believe he did something wrong, so naturally they point a finger at the teenager involved.
I’m not saying anyone is guilty, nor am I saying that the accuser is making up this story, but I will say this. Students look up to their teachers for guidance and instruction. They trust educators sometimes with their life and certainly with their futures. Teachers are in a position of power. If a child — under the law, those under the age of 18 are still children, and developmentally, they cannot fully comprehend the consequences of a sexual relationship — makes advances, it’s up to the teacher to make the decision to say no. They have power and authority, and we trust them with the responsibility of guiding children.
Whalen is innocent until proven guilty, but if past cases have taught us anything, he will be judged by the public. It shouldn’t happen, but that’s the life we live in today.
No one wants to see anyone accused of a crime, but accusations about sex with a minor, or any sexual crimes, must be taken seriously. The police have done their investigation and feel they have enough evidence to at least charge Whalen. If he is innocent, he will be proven so.
But blaming the accuser is not going to help him, and it certainly doesn’t show support for him in a positive way. All it does is turn a community against a child. We don’t know what transpired between Whalen and the student, and we don’t know why she waited so long to tell authorities.
In the end, we need to hold our tongues and wait until the facts come out before we judge anyone. We need to refrain from sending the message that anyone who believes they are being sexually abused will be publicly ridiculed and that it is better for them to just live with it. As much as we may want to believe that a teacher we all love and trust would never do such a thing, we can’t resort to blaming the accuser in order to rationalize the situation, nor should we condemn said teacher and assume he or she is guilty.
The facts of the case will come out. We need to wait for those facts until we decide to take anyone to Social Media Court.