Guest column: Standing up for vulnerable students

Like many others, I have been sickened as I read details of the alleged abuse R. Kelly is accused of. His case reminds me of the abuse I suffered at the whims of my high school teacher. He used a similar playbook of attracting me with his charisma, making me feel special and then using me as a sexual object.

I am not alone. It’s estimated that 1 in 10 students will experience sexual misconduct by school personnel by the time they graduate high school. That’s not to say that all misconduct rises to the level of criminal abuse, but being subjected to any sexual misconduct by a school authority figure is damaging to students who are mandated to be there and are unable to protect themselves. Just last year in Chicago Public Schools, eight sexual allegation cases resulted in criminal charges, and eight more involved severe sexual misconduct or grooming.

This is a persistent problem happening everywhere. I was abused in the northwest suburbs. I know other victims, from downstate, from Indiana, from Canada. How many students are suffering abuse and going uncounted in the other 1,000 districts in the state of Illinois? Who will stand up to protect them by reporting misconduct?

Despite recent legislation that addresses abuse, Illinois statute still has loopholes that perpetrators can exploit. That’s why I have been trying to raise awareness about House Bill 1975, a bill that passed the state House unanimously but ran out of time in the Senate during spring session. State Rep. Michelle Mussman filed this bill and state Sen. Scott Bennett is now stewarding it in the Senate.

The bill recently had a subject matter hearing where several expert witnesses testified in its favor, but the longer it sits, the longer children go without the protections that it offers. The bill would help victims of abuse and their families with a resource guide. It would provide training for teachers they currently don’t receive. It would amend school code to define and prohibit sexual misconduct and adjust criminal statute to close gaps that currently leave some students unprotected.

Unfortunately, no one stood up to protect me in 2001. Warning signs were dismissed. Two co-workers heard my abuser make lewd comments about female students’ years. Three knew he said he was in a relationship with me. But no one called the Department of Children and Family Services. My abuse was preventable, but bystanders failed to act when they saw warning signs.

Does this mean they didn’t care? I don’t think so. If they had known that their co-worker had sexually assaulted a student inside the school building, I think they would have reported it. But that’s the problem. There’s a sense of “it would never happen here” that allows bystanders to rationalize misconduct instead of reporting it. If bystanders wait until they observe the criminal behavior, they may never see it because abusers know how to hide it. What they will see are the recognizable and repeated boundary violations, and unless they take those seriously, they may inadvertently be helping a perpetrator hide among their ranks.

The only way to help the child is to act. Silence helps the perpetrator. Dismissing red flags helps the perpetrator. Teachers no doubt are saving countless children every year by making reports to DCFS of outside abuse, but I fear that, as in my case, there are many educators who are missing the warning signs of abuse already happening or in danger of happening soon.

I’m thankful that the injustice I experienced has reached the ear of those with power to change the law, and that despite no one heeding the warnings then, many lawmakers are heeding the call now. But delays already have stalled this bill for several months, and without action, delays will stall it again until the spring.

I have used my voice to turn my suffering into action for the sake of students still in danger. You can use your voice to call your state senator and ask them to support or co-sponsor this bill. You can talk to your local school administrator to ensure that they are taking safety measures to encourage reporting. I only wish the teachers who sincerely regret that I was abused would have made the report when they had the chance, and I hope they will for other kids in the future.

• Faith Colson is an abuse survivor who is the namesake of Faith’s Law (HB 1975). She grew up in suburban Chicago.