A tragic story broke last week about Brock Turner, a former Stanford University swimmer, who was found guilty of sexual assault against a young woman while she was unconscious. The crime was utterly horrendous, and the jury found Turner guilty on three felony counts. However, shortly after the verdict, the light sentence handed down by the judge made things go from bad to even worse. Some called the judgment “unthinkable.”
I have been following this case closely and observing the reactions seen in those here in the US and around the world. This situation struck a nerve for many, many reasons, primarily about how our culture views and responds to cases of sexual assault. I have also reflected on what lessons we can glean about the handling of student disciplinary issues, knowing that many of you are responsible for handling difficult cases of student misconduct. Today, I would like to submit three insights we might want to consider in the aftermath of this heartbreaking case. They surround the messages that were sent by three parties involved.
I offer them to you here and welcome your feedback and additions.
We Must Never Defend Wrong Conduct to Ease the Tension
When Brock Turner’s case went to court, his father was understandably concerned for the future of his son. He was likely dismayed and disturbed by the inexcusable behavior his son was found guilty of that January night in 2015, but knew the negative impact a prison sentence would have on his son’s life forever. Unfortunately, he communicated a message we should never give our children. It’s the message that downplays the gravity of such a crime (or any type of misconduct) in favor of easing the tension and pain it creates.
Brock’s father wrote the judge a letter, saying his son was young. He dismissed the crime as “20-minutes of action”, and suggested that any more than six months in prison would harm him forever. He reminded the judge that his son had a clean record and was a good kid and a star athlete. While the latter may be true, when we say such things, our students receive the message: “Do what you must to relieve the pain; avoid the consequences due you. Find a way to negotiate a lighter sentence.” What a parent should say when they are in this situation is: “Son, I love you and will stand with you every moment of this trial. But what you did was wrong, and we can’t remove the consequences for your actions. You must take responsibility for what you did, and do everything within your power to make restitution.”
We Must Never Communicate It’s Not a Big Deal
As I mentioned above, for many, the sentencing that Judge Aaron Persky gave Brock Turner was appalling. CNN reported “Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky said on Thursday that Turner’s age and lack of criminal history made him feel that imposing a six-month jail sentence with probation was appropriate. Turner also has to register as a sex offender. ‘A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,’ Persky said. ‘I think he will not be a danger to others.’”
This sentence was seen as such a miscarriage of justice that a million people signed a petition to remove the judge from his position. I think we have all had such a negative reaction to the sentence because it sends a fundamentally wrong message to the perpetrator. It basically says: “What you did isn’t a big deal. Now let me slap your hand and you can get on your way. Just be careful in the future.”
The truth is, the initial sentence Judge Persky gave Brock allowed him to be out of jail in three months with good behavior. This screams the wrong message to today’s emerging generation. While I agree that we must consider restoration possibilities as part of a long-term plan for those found guilty of crimes, we must not remove appropriate retribution. The two are not mutually exclusive.
We Must Never Forget the Power of Ownership
When the victim in this case heard the verdict, she was understandably devastated by the injustice. At Turner’s sentencing, she read a twelve-page letter to her attacker. In words filled with both anguish and anger, she described what happened to her during and after her attack. Through pointed and emotional language, she reminded the judge that Turner is an adult who should be held responsible and penalized for his actions.
One portion of her letter struck me in particular. She said, “I thought there’s no way this is going to trial…He’s going to settle, formally apologize and we will both move on. Instead, I was told he hired a powerful attorney…to show that this sexual assault was in fact a misunderstanding. That he was going to go to any length to convince the world he had simply been confused.” Did you catch what she said? She initially felt that if he would fully acknowledge what he had done and formally apologized, there could be a way for them both to move on. In other words, she wanted him to own what he had done and not displace the blame to anyone or anything else.
I cannot underscore how vital this stance is when a wrong action has been done to another person. Is there genuine remorse and are there signs the person who acted wrongly owns his or her actions?
Although you and I may never be faced with a situation as atrocious as this case, we may have to lead young people, or even our children, who have acted in a way that requires discipline. We need to model for them responses that demonstrate our firm resolve to never minimize actions. We must not aid them in attempting to push blame to others. And we must teach the power of ownership as the first step in making restitution. Anything less ultimately damages those we lead.
Talk to Me…
I welcome your additions to my observations. I encourage staff and students to discuss this issue. Is there a balance to strike between the discipline we must offer to students and the possibilities that open up when they fully own their behavior?