Searching for a Teachable Moment in Torrington

Mar 27, 2013

TV cameras persist in Torrington nearly a week after vicious online comments about an alleged statutory rape victim went viral. Now the town is wrestling with some difficult questions. School district officials say they’re doing their best to protect student confidentiality and to move forward.

It was one of the worst days of superintendent Cheryl Kloczko’s career. Last week, police showed up at her door to say that two 18-year-old football players at her district’s high school were charged with statutory rape of two 13-year-old girls. Later that same day, she was dealing with an article in the local newspaper, the Torrington Register-Citizen, reporting not only those charges –but also that students had taken to Twitter to blame the victims, calling them names like “whore” and “snitch.”

“The only thing I can think of by the time the day was done, was that it was probably like 9/11…what impact that had for me as an administrator in the school building that day," Kloczko recalls.

Since the news broke last week, the town has gotten national attention. Another unnamed 17-year-old has been charged in the case, and school and police officials say more arrests may be on the way. Pictures and tweets in support of the alleged perpetrators and blaming the victims continue to be posted publicly online. That leaves Torrington as the latest in a string of test cases for how schools are increasingly forced to deal with student activity that happens off campus.

“It used to be that administrators were responsible for what happened in their school, and at school events," says Joanne Creedon, principal at Torrington High School.

“And now, we’re really responsible 24/7.”

So, how can Torrington do better to either prevent unfortunate incidents like this, or at least deal with them before they spiral out of control? The high school has already had to revisit its athletic policy since a hazing scandal within the football team last fal.

“We did add a clarification on hazing, that hazing of any kind will not be tolerated. Hazing is always the abuse of power, of intimidation, and its against someone’s civil rights," Creedon says.

Plus, it turns out that one of the 18-year-old football players charged with statutory rape was allowed to play games last year despite a different pending felony charge of robbery. Cheryl Kloczko now says that was a mistake. But it’s clear that something deeper needs to change – and it’s probably not unique to Torrington.

“We need to talk about this, and we need parents talking about it and we need teachers talking about it, and we really need to get good information out to people," says Barbara Spiegel.

Spiegel is director of the Susan B. Anthony project, a non-profit that educates schoolkids about healthy relationships and preventing sexual violence. The project has actually reached 787 students at Torrington High School this year, out of the total 1100.

“Cyberbullying in the media for ninth graders, boundaries and consent for tenth graders, and healthy relationships for twelfth graders," Spiegel says, listing off the names of courses that were taught.

It’s painfully obvious that those lessons have not yet sunk in. So now the Susan B. Anthony project is going back into classrooms starting today to reinforce them.

“Now the iron is hot,” says assistant principal Creedon. “It’s time to make sure that we cycle through this information now…when they are most likely to be open to the information.”

Steve Hernandez of the Connecticut Commission on Children says that’s really what should have been happening all along, according to the state’s new bullying law, which the Commission helped write. The law says schools should establish a space where students can talk about concerns like this. Not a temporary space, like in one health class. A permanent one.

“It’s only through an ongoing discussion and an ongoing space that children are going to be able to address this," Hernandez says.

That’s why we know that an assembly doesn’t help if that’s all that the school is doing.”

Another big part of the law has to do with defining bullying and who’s responsible for reporting it. Usually it’s students that have to come forward with their concerns; in Torrington, officials said they always investigate bullying, online or offline, when students bring it to their attention. But Hernandez says it’s crucial that adults look for signs on their own. It’s not fair to put that all on kids.

“Children should not be in charge of advocating for themselves in circumstances that are inherently imbalanced," he says.

Torrington officials say they will definitely be revisiting how they investigate bullying or generally mean and inappropriate comments online. Maybe it means monitoring Twitter, at least right after an incident like a student arrest. Maybe it means having policies that could lead to student suspension or expulsion for misbehavior online. But the bigger challenge will be getting at how kids use the internet. Creedon says in her discussions with the kids who’ve tweeted or posted pictures about the alleged statutory rapes, that’s what strikes her the most.

“It’s so instantaneous that there’s no time for checking. It’s just, ‘this is what I feel. I’m going to put it out there. And I’m going to send it. And not a thought about, ‘whoa, think before you send. That piece seems to be missing.”

Teaching that piece is going to be a long process.

Read more in the Connecticut Mirror at ctmirror.org.