An 11-year-old girl was brutally raped in November 2010 in Cleveland, Texas, a small community of 9,000 that lies about 50 miles northeast of Houston. There, according the New York Times article “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town,” the girl was gang raped by 18 young men and teenage boys, all of whom have been charged with the crime.
The suspects range in age from middle school students to a 27-year-old. Five are Cleveland High School students, including two basketball players. Another is the son of a school board member. A few men have criminal backgrounds. (The attack occurred around Thanksgiving, but the story didn’t appear in the Times until March 8.)
It is hard for me to write about this rape, because I have a granddaughter who is almost 10 years old. The girl, who survived the rape, attended Cleveland Middle School. School authorities interviewed her and her mother, and when it was determined that the gang rape had occurred, they turned the matter over to the police, because the attack hadn’t occurred “on school property.”
Some town residents’ reactions, as reported in the Times story, are shockingly unsympathetic. Although one resident said that the rape was “really tearing our community apart,” others blamed the victim, because she “dressed older than her age, [wore] makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s, and [hung] out with teenage boys at the playground.”
One of the few residents willing to speak on the record went so far as to say, “Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?”
In a letter to the Times, reader Jinnie Spiegler, of Brooklyn, NY, expressed some of my outrage about this last comment. She pointed to the residents’ willingness to “subtly blame the victim” and her mother, forgetting that the victim as well as the suspects “are innocent until proved guilty.”
An 11-year-old girl’s or any woman’s dress or behavior should never be an issue in rape and sexual assault cases. This approach falls into the “she asked for it” type of wrongheaded thinking.
The girl now lives in a foster home after having been removed from her home by Child Protective Services, according to The Houston Chronicle. I hope she is receiving the appropriate counseling and care that she needs. But I am deeply concerned that she will have to relive the brutality of her experience, if or when she has to face the accused who raped her in court, testify to their cruelty, and undergo cross-examination and possible humiliation from their lawyers, who’ll be eager to keep their clients out of jail.
What’s happening in northeastern Texas to address the aftermath of this brutal crime? Are schools administrators, teachers, and community leaders using the gang rape as the “teachable moment” that it surely is? Are other middle- and high-school students learning that rape and sexual assault are illegal, unacceptable behaviors? Are all teachers receiving training, so they can effectively discuss these issues? Are they explaining that even if a girl or woman wears what might be called age-inappropriate clothing and makeup that makes them look far older than they really are, that never means they are “asking” to be raped? I wish I were confident that the town is abuzz with this type of education.
Special attention needs to be directed to young and adult men in Cleveland. I’ve always favored sex education for boys and girls in both separate and mixed-gender groups. When boys and girls are alone, they often feel freer to ask questions that they might feel embarrassed to ask in a heterogeneous group, which is good. But it is essential to have both genders discuss issues like rape together, so they can understand each other’s points of view. If sex education is started early, in elementary school, boys and girls can address subjects like rape much more comfortably as they grow into adolescence and adulthood. Silence on this topic never helps.
Males need to know that if they rape and are found guilty of the crime that they forever will be listed as “sexual predators” and be required to check in with authorities in any town in which they live. This seems to me a punishment that fits the crime, along with jail time. I wonder if the teen and adult men who raped the little girl in Cleveland knew about or understood the lifelong consequences of their actions for themselves and the victim.
Schools need to discuss consequences of sexual actions much more comprehensively than many presently do. We need to ensure that discussions of real subjects like rape are included in sex education/health courses, starting in grade school.
As for the parents in Cleveland, Texas, and elsewhere for that matter, they too need a course on rape and sexual assault prevention. They need to know how to better protect their own kids and how to counsel them about how to avoid dangerous situations.
Mothers and fathers – and if there are no males in the home, then male relatives and friends – must talk to teens and young men about the horrors and illegalities of rape.
I also hope that the community addresses the matter of blaming the girl’s mother. I would ask, “Where were the mothers of the 18 young men charged with the crime? Where were all the fathers?”
Cleveland, Texas, isn’t the only place in America that needs a re-education in how to prevent rape and treat its survivors. Schools and communities all over the country need to talk more forthrightly with young people and adults about rape and sexual assault. The President and First Lady were masterful in calling the nation’s attention to the problem of bullying, with a conference at The White House and a video in which they spoke movingly about the seriousness of the problem. Now they need to consider using the brutal crime against this 11-year-old girl in Texas to call the nation’s attention to the epidemic of rape and other sexual violence against girls and women.
To the young girl in Texas who had to experience such degradation, my concern and deepest sympathy. I hope she will never be ashamed about being repeatedly raped by those men in that house and abandoned trailer filled with trash. I am not a therapist who might counsel her to “put this awful event behind you, and go on and live your life.” I can see the sense in this point of view. But, as an educator, a parent, and a grandparent, I hope that as she grows older – and after the physical and emotional pain have healed – she will find the courage to speak out about what happened.
If she finds the courage, she will be doing other young girls like my granddaughter a real service and perhaps lessening the incidence of rape in our country.
Image from The New York Times.