What do you call someone who’s sexually harassed by a male, middle-school teacher and then is sexually abused and stalked over a number of years by a female teacher from the same school?
The usual reaction would be to call that person a victim, but in this case, she’s not. She’s a hero of the first order, and I’ll tell you why.
This is someone who was not alone in the abusive situations. There were at least seven girls in that school who were harassed and abused and, from what has been made public, even though they reported the events, the faculty and the administration did nothing substantive to either stop it or make it known to the parents and the public.
Rumors were rampant and then, when the male teacher, Dan Witters, committed suicide by driving his vehicle off a cliff, the police said there was no case and nothing further was done.
But more was done, at least to this young girl, but it wasn’t public. Then for years after the abuse stopped, she lived with pain, guilt and shame. Her self-blame was so strong she never even told her parents, because, she told me, she was afraid the truth would destroy all their lives.
But she had other strengths, which allowed her to move on with her life – undergo counseling, finish school, begin her career as a swim coach and marry. Her husband knew the horrific secrets she kept, but they both knew that only she could make the decision to break the wall of silence that had trapped her for so many years.
Then, with a special grace no one can explain, Kristen Cunnane revealed the truth of the horror she endured.
The Moraga, Calif., girl went to the police, told them what was done to her by teachers at Joaquin Moraga Middle School, named names and the perpetrator of her ordeal.
Julie Correa was charged with 23 felony sex crimes, pleaded no contest to four and was sentenced to eight years in prison. (She’s now appealing, claiming she didn’t fully understand the terms of the plea.)
The ugly details of Kristen’s ordeal were revealed publically as a result of her legal case but also because of an investigation by the Contra Costa Times.
It was the first time the public saw the truth of what had been a failure of duty on the part of the school district and a cover-up of the abuse by officials, many of whom are still there.
As word of the scandal spread, there was a burst of similar stories from other area school districts, and, in one case, there was another suicide of a teacher involved in such crimes.
It’s become an almost weekly revelation of sexual and physical abuse of children – some as young as preschool. Finally people are paying attention.
What really got the attention of officials, however, was that Kristen sued the Moraga School District and its immediate response was to file statements essentially saying Kristen was partially responsible for her abuse.
She was 11 years old when the abuse began.
The reaction to such an outrageous legal position forced the district to withdraw the allegation, but her lawsuit remains.
But then something wonderful happened – at least three of the other girls who were sexually harassed at the same time Kristen was – came forward and sued the school district.
They’ve not been publicly identified, but their suits proceed while the district tries for a settlement.
I’ve followed this story since May 2012 and have interviewed Kristen on my radio program, as well as an attorney for one of the other women.
I have urged them not to settle, and I’m hoping the others who were harassed will hear about Kristen and have the courage to come forward for justice as well.
In my view, since the district has prevented the public from knowing what happened over the years since the abuse, since it paid for counseling for some of the other victims but never made that public, since the teachers union has paid for legal assistance for faculty but that has not been made public, and since the town officials have refused to say anything about the outrageousness of the situation – the only decent outcome is for them to pay: in dollars and publicity.
I also believe people who are still in the district or in town need to face legal consequences.
The district is now patting itself on the back, saying it has instituted procedures for abuse reporting – except those procedures existed before, and they weren’t followed.
Too little, too late.
I’ve repeatedly urged the town council to ask the district to tell the full story. It refused, saying it couldn’t tell the schools what to do.
I asked them to support Kristen. They issued a short statement, released to a local weekly paper but which hardly anyone saw.
Ironically, at the same time, a Moraga teen was getting national publicity for coming out as gay just before his Eagle Scout eligibility, which was denied because of Boy Scout policy.
One wonders how he “suddenly” found out he was gay just before he was to be an Eagle Scout but apparently never knew about BSA rules.
But the town council spoke up. It essentially slammed the Scouts with a special presentation at a council meeting issuing a proclamation of support to the boy – garnering huge headlines and slaps on the back.
Because of political correctness, they honored the wrong person.
Kristen Cunnane is the hero for speaking up against the system, which protected her abuser.
She’s the hero, because other victims gained the courage to come forward.
She’s the hero, whether or not the officials and citizens of Moraga recognize that.
No one can take that away from her.