The culture of silence at LCD

By Misch Pautsch Switch to German for original article

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The harassment allegations against a teacher at Diekirch High School (LCD) are more than a year old, according to a student. But this kind of allegations has been an open secret for at least eight years. Concrete consequences, however, were not implemented until students became vocal on social media.

The news that a teacher at the LCD was reprimanded for alleged inappropriate behavior early last week should come as no great surprise to many former and current students of the high school in Diekrich. Students who left the high school as far as eight years ago already talked about questionable late-night messages by the teacher. Discussions about which courses girls better wear thick turtlenecks in, were commonplace. As a current student tells Lëtzebuerger Journal, the current principal, Marcel Kramer, was in possession of solid evidence of the alleged harassment since at least February 2020, more than a year ago: Screenshots of the messages the teacher had sent to her and other students. The actual reprimand, however, reportedly only came after screenshots of the conversations made their rounds on social media. Why did the harassment continue, while the director was in possession of evidence?

"I felt like he wasn't really taking this seriously."

Sofia*, anonymous student at the LCD

The Department of Education's (MENJE) explanation of the time frame in which harassment cases must be reported by the principal is succinct: "As soon as someone is aware of the report." Students can report to the classroom teacher, the directorate or SEPAS. "If the school directorate has knowledge of allegations, they must be passed on to the prosecutor's office or the ministry. The ministry can then contact the Commissaire de gouvernement aux affaires disciplinaires or the prosecutor's office if there are criminal aspects." The school superintendent can do so, too. The consequences of failing to do so, the MENJE writes, "depend on the gravity of the factual situation."

"The first time I went to the principal to tell him about the incidents was in February 2020", says Sofia*, a student at the high school. "I told him that other students also had similar experiences with the teacher. The principal replied they should come to him themselves. But many didn't dare to do that. So I explained to him that I have written evidence of the incidents on my cell phone, which I wanted to show him. His response: 'I don't have time for that now.' I felt like he wasn't really taking this seriously."

Sofia* says the director deemed the content of the screenshots not "bad enough" to take legal action. "Some messages might look less problematic out of context, but this has been going on for years", she explains. "The teacher has a tendency to email students at night that he 'needs them' and to please contact him. To one student he wrote, that he had 'seen her in the hallways of the school and was glad their paths had crossed'. To another, who had just graduated from high school, he wrote that he hoped to see her again because 'the internet is such a cold place, but I am a man of human warmth'…" After the report, a year ago now, the teacher is said to have received a strongly worded letter. Last year, Sofia recalls, she told a teacher she trusted about the situation, who then asked Principal Kramer which actions had been taken since then: "She said he told her that I shouldn't talk about it anymore because the matter had been 'taken care of.'" Sofia says teachers in general were supportive, which amounted to little for the longest time. The matter always seemed to stall at the directors' office. Meanwhile, the harassment continued.

Thats why Sofia* shared the screenshots on the Internet, as did many other students from the high school: "Just so something finally happens. And to encourage other students to report their experiences, too. Until now, the problems have been ignored." The reactions of the teaching staff to the "revelations" were mixed: Some teachers were surprised. Others less so, because he had been "known for this kind of thing. Some defended him because he had 'private problems.' One teacher even told me not to talk about it."

"I believe that female students have the right to feel safe at school"

Sofia*, student

The power imbalance between the principal, teaching staff and students is enormous. A grade, that can depend on whether the teaching staff is well-meaning, can make or break a school year – and a year of your life. Protective procedures against abuses of this power do exist in theory. But trust in such procedures – if it ever existed – has already been broken twice in such cases. Why trust authorities a second time when they have already failed once in the form of the teacher and once in the form of the contact person?

Vow of silence

So far, there has been a lot of silence on the matter: Four former students of the high school report that the lecturer had already sent them private messages at least eight years ago, right after they left the graduating class: "At the beginning, I thought he just wanted to stay in touch, even though I never had him as a teacher myself. Until he started drunk texting me at night. It wasn't explicitly sexual, but he complimented me a lot", says Laura*. "Two days later, he apologized for his behavior after I told him I thought his messages were odd. After that, I removed him from my contact list." A year and a half ago, however, he contacted her again and sent her a friend request on Facebook, "from a profile that was full of self-drawn nudes. I declined that request, but took no further action. The nude pictures were also documented by Michelle*. She saved the pictures on her cell phone as evidence because an acquaintance of hers had also been harassed and took legal action. Emily*, a further victim, reports that the teacher invited her to a restaurant right after graduation, after sending her "problematic" messages – eight years ago. A fourth ex-student, Zoé*, also reported receiving inappropriate messages. The latter two, although very uncomfortable with the messages, had not taken legal action.

"The principal somehow got my boyfriend's phone number and called him."

Cilia*, former student

Even today, eight years later, the habit of silence has power over the women: All want to remain anonymous. Some oft hem work in education themelves and don't want to go public, lest their carrer is affected by their testimony. One of them wrestles with the option of taking legal action, but she intends to wait until she is completely secure professionally. "Otherwise they could make my life difficult." Another insisted on anonymity because she has siblings in school and worries about them. The breach of trust extends far beyond the school itself.

Calls and complaints

"It's high time that the victims are protected instead of the perpetrators", says Cilia*, another former student of the high school who recently left the LCD. In her eyes, this is about more than that one teacher: When the high school's dress code came under heavy criticism last year, she joined the online discussion: "I accused [another] teacher of pedophilic behavior and complained that Mr. Kramer was covering up this behavior with the dress code. As a result, the principal somehow found out my boyfriend's phone number, who attended a different school and called him. After giving my friend a good run-down, he asked to speak to me." When her boyfriend refused, the principal messaged Cilia* on Facebook. "There he told me that he was disappointed that an ex-student would do this. He said such accusations could 'destroy existences' and that I should immediately remove the teacher's name from my post." Otherwise, he would be forced to file a lawsuit." So she removed the name.

She was sued regardless: "For defamation. So I filed a counterclaim and invited some of my classmates as witnesses. They only wanted to testify by e-mail, because the situation was very unpleasant." Emily* showed the police officers voicemails and screenshots that made it clear the students had been uncomfortable with the teacher for a long time. After that conversation, the matter seemed to fizzle out. "I have not been contacted by the police after that. But the principal has been keeping a close eye on me ever since. Every time I post something on social media he does everything he can to have me keep my mouth shut." How someone could get away with these methods for so long, she fails to understand. "There are more of this kind of teacher. We used to warn each other to wear clothes that covered everything, otherwise they wouldn't take his eyes off of you… "Writing about this publicly was probably a bit reckless, but I was furious. With this dress code, they tried to blame us for their actions."

Information campaign: Denied

Lily*, another former student also prefers to remain anonymous – the previous threats of lawsuits were "more than enough", she says. She contacted the principal after learning that there was finally movement on the issue following the release of the screenshots. It was important to her that the air was finally cleared. That's why she made a suggestion to the principal to collect evidence from the harassed students herself and hand it over to him. "He said that would make little sense. The students would have to come forward themselves." But this is exactly where the difficulty lies: it takes a lot of overcoming to go to a male authority figure with this sort of problem. "So I wrote that this is exactly why this kind of thing gets aired on social media and why some teachers have been able to muck about for so long: Because there aren't enough places to report such cases. And the ones that do exist aren't well-known enough." So she suggested Principal Kramer designate a contact person for such cases or even just set up a universally known email address where students can report to. Informational posters, she wrote, could help render existing structures more visible. Talking about the issue in classes could also do a lot of good. "In response, he said there were enough places to report to. He also cited an online comment about the school by another person I don't know, calling 'cancel culture' and slander a serious problem. He said these kinds of statements could destroy existences and that he was ashamed that I was not taught better manners during my time in LCD. He said he assumed that I was also glad that [yet another] case of my public speaking about behavior didn't result in a lawsuit, but was handled internally."

None of the interviewees knows about the alleged information posters. The Ombudsman for Children and Youth Charel Schmit has long advocated the need for a Child Protection Officer to whom students can turn when they have problems – which was exactly Lily's* suggestion as well. "This point of contact needs to be very clearly separated from the powerful internal school hierarchy. Every child must know their name and face. We require that there be procedures in all schools that are just as well known as the fire evacuation plan." The first reflex of authority figures must always be to protect the welfare of children, says the ombudsman: "Everything else is secondary. At that moment, it can not matter to the authority if the case might reflect badly on the school." Cases of harassment, he explains, can never be completely prevented, as much as one might want to. But their impact has to be kept as small as possible. "We recommend that principals take this kind of thing very, very seriously and we assume that most of the time they do."

If a teacher yells at a child, for example, there are ways handle the matter internally. "In the case of repeated behavior, as seems to be the case here, concrete action has to be taken. Not to destroy existences, but to draw clear boundaries and make it clear to everyone involved what is is allowed and what is a no-go. Especially when the dignity of children is being put into question by an authority figure." It is the permanent task of all schools to raise awareness and protect children. Nevertheless, personal rights of the persons concerned must not be violated, says Schmit – public denunciation should not be the way to solve such problems.

"I have long advocated the need for a Child Protection Officer to be employed in schools. This point of contact needs to be very clearly separated from the powerful internal school hierarchy."

Charel Schmit, Ombudsman for Children and Youth

"Individuals with official status are required by law to report illegal activity. The question of whether or not the cases are ultimately actionable is irrelevant. The body that has to decide that is the judiciary itself, no one else", says Tom Krieps, who teaches child and youth protection law as a lawyer at the "Institut de formation de l'éducatoin nationale." "If children suffer permanent damage because someone failed to report misconduct, there's also the question of failure to assist a person in danger." If a person is in possession of proof, he or she is legally obligated to report. If a teacher repeatedly texts a student outside of class, the attorney explains, this is harassment and must be treated as such. "If these messages have a sexual connotation, we are talking about criminal offenses. If officials don't act in such cases, it can lead to very serious consequences. If the person in question is an authority figure, the matter is looked at even more severely." The sticking point here is the repetitive nature of the cases. "At some point, you have to tell yourself that something is fishy here. One swallow does a summer not make, but a swarm certainly does." For potential prosecutions, he explains, the court that would have been responsible at the time of the potential crime remains responsible. So if a person was harassed while they were a minor but have since come of age, that would be a case of child harassment. The advantage of children's court, he explains, is usually that cases there are handled very discreetly – away from the public eye and social media. "There's also the question of how the person got the private phone number of the student's boyfriend."

Last fall, the LCD already made waves with a dress code that was widely criticized as sexist and led to an online petition from a former student. The code should not be implemented in its original form, but should be worded in a gender-neutral way, the petition said. Principal Kramer's rebuttal in the Eldoradio interview: "Girls in particular may need guidelines because they're not always aware of how their appearance is perceived by others." At the same time, director Kramer filed lawsuit against a studend who drew a carricature of him, which has since been withdrawn. But the accusation of "victim-blaming" through oversexualization of the female body inherent in the dress code, already raised at the time, is quickly taking on very concrete forms against the backdrop of these new developments. They raises the question: By whom are "especially girls" actually "perceived"? And how? After all these alleged cases over all these years, only two possible conclusions remain: Either the management had no idea, what was happening at their school. Or they knew.

When asked for commentary, the direction of LCD referred us to the MENJE.

*All names of the students have been changed.