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Miro's "Blue III" (1961)

Unfitting Prosecution
Two 5-Year-Old Victims, and a Mob

[On Friday the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors awarded me first place for editorial writing. Here’s one of the three pieces that were part of the winning entry, from last November: it wasn’t the first time that children who haven’t yet begun to read are called names and accused of crimes that only indict their accusers’ luridness and inhumanity. It won't be the last.]

Too much is already known publicly about the case of a 5-year-old boy allegedly touching a 5-year-old girl in her private parts at Old Kings Elementary sometime last month. And way too much is being asserted just as publicly—about the boy, about the school principal, about the school system—that it’s difficult to see how any of it can benefit the children involved, or their school.

Here’s the little that is officially known. Late last month, a girl who attends kindergarten at Old Kings Elementary told her mother that during recess, she went to a bathroom and was followed there by a boy who’s also in kindergarten. In the bathroom, the boy allegedly touched the girl inappropriately, possibly with his finger, possibly with a stick he’d allegedly picked up in the playground. No one else witnessed what happened. That’s not to say that something upsetting and possibly disturbing didn’t happen; only that the details of what did happen must depend on the words of two 5-year-olds; that they must be weighed within those obvious limitations; and that everything beyond the limitations is nothing more than allegations.

The girl’s mother had her daughter examined by a doctor, who concluded that mild trauma had occurred. When the girl’s mother informed the school of the incident, the boy was suspended indefinitely, pending a set of requirements, including counseling, he and his parents were to follow. The Sheriff’s Office began investigating. The Department of Children and Families was notified. The goal of the school system was to have the boy back in school as soon as possible, once those steps were followed, and even then, under supervision in addition to the boy’s regular teacher.

Had that been the gist of the story, it would not have warranted a story to begin with. It would have been a private matter between the school and the children’s parents, and a supremely more private one considering the issue in question. It did not turn out that way, once the incident was made public on two online forums - including, briefly, the school district’s—with the girl’s mother’s encouragement.

What led to that point, according to the girl’s mother, was the school keeping her in the dark about the case or hectoring and intimidating her as if she were a trouble-maker for pursuing it (visits with the school counselor, promised her daughter, apparently were not scheduled until the mother went public), and an attempt by the Sheriff’s Office to forbid the mother from speaking about the case publicly - an obvious attempt to interfere with the mother’s rights. If this is a case of lousy communication and mismanagement of an extremely delicate situation by the school, then it warrants the mother’s anger - and her attempts to seek redress by other means.

But it goes beyond that. Since the issue has been made public on an online forum, the boy and the Old Kings Elementary principal, Denise Haymes, have been demonized. The terms “sexual offender,” “perpetrator,” “attacker,” “the threat of this boy,” “this little monster,” and other similarly disproportionate accusations, including “rape,” have been lashed up by authors whose online signatures sport cuddly pet images, breast-cancer-solidarity ribbons and lovey rainbow logos—all contradicted by the sheer viciousness of the posts and their presumptions of what ought to be done with the boy (their preference is for an alternative school, preferably for sexual offenders, preferably out of the county). “Mrs. Haymes,” one poster noted, “is back in the dark ages.” Not exactly: it’s the online forum that has taken on the air of a witch-hunt, with a plan afoot to march all the way to the School Board’s meeting on Tuesday to demand “action.”

It bears repeating: If the school administration reacted insensitively or with even a hint of casualness, it should be held to account. But that’s a different issue altogether from the way the incident itself is being characterized, and how the district ought to address the children’s schooling from here on. This, too, bears saying: A 5-year-old does not “molest.” A 5-year-old is not a “perpetrator.” A 5-year-old cannot be a “sexual offender,” let alone worse. Those are loaded, forensic, legal terms that are as alien to a 5-year-old’s capacities as any 5-year-old’s comprehension of them.

There isn’t one 5-year-old victim in this incident. There are two, both of whom deserve utmost care and nurturing - not a mob of judgments and cheap-shot prosecutions. Online forums aren’t known for reason. Should the matter reach the School Board on Tuesday, reason should finally prevail, if it hasn’t already.

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