If something sensible happened at Niagara Wheatfield High School in the aftermath of one student’s rape of another, will somebody please explain it? From start to finish, the school’s handling of issues stemming from the attack was at least inept and at worst, unconscionable. All school districts, the State Education Department and the State Legislature need to take note.
The fundamental problem was this: The school treated it as business as usual when Elias Q. Dowdy was arrested last July for raping another student. He continued to attend school as usual – playing sports, planning for graduation and, all the time, requiring his victim to suffer his presence.
Only last week was Dowdy finally removed from school, days after pleading guilty to third-degree rape in Niagara County Court. He could receive up to four years in prison when he is sentenced on July 25, but is also eligible for youthful offender status.
At least one person in this ugly mess made sense, and it wasn’t Principal Michael Mann, whose head parents now want on a platter and who was put on administrative leave Thursday. Unbelievably, the voice of reason came from Dowdy’s victim. Her wise and mature understanding of the issues surrounding her own assault put the adults around her to shame.
“I don’t think anyone should have to go to school and see the person who’s ruined/changed their life,” she wrote in a text message to The Buffalo News. “They should know that going to school they’ll be away from him/her.”
She went on: “I understand he has the right to education but why couldn’t they give him that a different way, with our after school program or send him to the academy? Why did I have to go to school everyday and see him, it killed me more and more everyday knowing he was walking school pretending nothing happened.”
The situation was surely complicated by the presumption of innocence to which the student, like all criminal suspects, was entitled. Those are not just words. The concept – innocent until proven guilty – is intrinsic to any system that seeks to focus and restrain the power of governments to mete out punishment.
But acknowledging that presumption doesn’t mean simply ignoring hard facts. When a student is formally charged with assaulting another in the same school, administrators have an ethical duty to respond in a thoughtful way that protects the victim, even if the crime is only alleged. In Niagara Wheatfield, they didn’t.
One time, for example, Dowdy's victim said she was directed to use the district’s in-school suspension room when she was feeling unsafe. She was the one required to adjust her routine, not her rapist. That happened once, she said, but she has also been absent as a result of stress brought on by having to see her attacker in school.
It’s not uncommon for employers to respond when a worker is charged with a crime. The Lancaster School District suspended principal Amy Moeller following her February arrest for drunken driving. She was reinstated last month. Even Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, has paid a price. He is barred from any committee assignments in Congress because of his arrest last year on insider trading allegations. He has pleaded not guilty and a trial is not scheduled until next year.
Yet, Niagara Wheatfield left a student who had been sexually assaulted largely to fend for herself. It was a terrible decision, compounded last week by Mann’s hamfisted response to a walkout by students who were upset at the school’s indifference to their classmate’s suffering. Why not just let them have their say, under quiet supervision? It would have hurt no one.
We can all hope no school in Western New York is ever confronted again with this kind of crisis, but none should plan on it. Schools should take a lesson. Protect your students.