Monday, November 9, 2009

Community Continues to Grapple With Rape

From the NY Times

Published: November 7, 2009

As Richmond High School tried to absorb the wrenching reality of a gang rape of a student on school grounds, the predominant reactions — horror or sympathy or even fear — were understood by the school’s principal, Julio Franco.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Hundreds attended a rally and vigil for the victim on Nov. 3 at Richmond High School.

Paul Sakuma/Associated Press
SUPPORT AND FEAR While some students at Richmond High are sympathetic to the victim, others perpetuate a culture that blames her.

But there was another reaction that Mr. Franco has difficulty processing: sentiments like those voiced by Fonz Leon, a junior, as he stood in the school parking lot one recent afternoon: “She got drunk one time and messed with the wrong crowd and provoked some dude and got raped, that’s it.”
Mr. Franco said: “Even girls said this was O.K. because she went on her own. I tell them, ‘What if this was your sister? What if this was your mom?’ Then they realize, ‘Oh.’ ”
It has been two weeks since a 16-year-old girl was raped after a homecoming dance by at least six young men in front of a group of onlookers. Yet reactions like Fonz’s linger. It is as if some of the virulent culture that gave rise to the attack itself, with all its cruelty and degradation, is defiantly asserting itself, despite efforts to contain it.
Too-frequent crimes around the Bay Area — like the shooting of a 12-year-old trick or treater in San Jose and another gang rape in Contra Costa County last month — leave people alternately raw and numb. But the story of the Richmond rape with its daily updates now occupies a larger stage. There it unspools daily: a tale of unmoored adolescence, with multiple acts.
If the first act was a group crime with a willing audience, the second is the impulse of some students to dismiss it all as trivial, at worst a mere misadventure in which the victim was complicit.
It can be felt in the hallways, as some students mutter and belittle the rape and trash-talk the victim, students said. It can be seen in the MySpacepostings, highlighted by the Web site SFist, which attack the “snitches” who reported the crime.
Teachers attribute some of the posturing to adolescent insensitivity or a strong current of street-gang culture. But teachers and community leaders also say the students, struggling with the incident, are playing down the brutality and blaming the victim to establish emotional distance.
“I’ve seen this for years,” said Rhonda James, the executive director of the rape crisis center for Contra Costa and Marin Counties. “We have to ‘otherize’ the victim; otherwise we would live in fear and we wouldn’t get up in the morning.”
Richmond has long been one of the poorest cities in the Bay Area. Residents have bristled at the publicity surrounding the rape, with its suggestions that the city is home to animals or savages. Community leaders point out that abuse of women is a national problem.
The community has tried to pull together, as it did Tuesday with a rally and vigil attended by hundreds of people. The victim sent a statement: “We realize people are angry about this, but let the anger cause change; that is necessary to keep our children, our neighbors and our friends safe.”
Patricia Gonzalez, the mother of three Richmond High students, said the rape “just makes me enormously sad.” She said that since the attacks, “I’ve become a lot more strict; I’m demanding a lot more communication. I tell them, ‘If you see anyone strange, anything that worries you, just get out of there.’ ”
The police have arrested seven suspects ages 15 to 21, including one Richmond High student and several former students. Six are charged with multiple felonies; five face life in prison if convicted. During the assault, at least a dozen young men came and went, gawking and jeering as the girl was brutalized.
“The people involved were not viewing our victim as a human being,” said Lt. Mark Gagan of the Richmond police. “We are actively looking for everyone who was there. If we can punish them for any role, we will.”
Still, as in the hallways of any high school, the chatter can be raw. “People used to make fun of her,” Miqui Maciel, a 10th grader, said of the victim. “So when people found out who it was, they lost a lot of sympathy for her.”
Fifteen days after the attack, the school remains divided.
In two dozen conversations, teachers and the majority of students expressed frustration at how many students remained callously indifferent, if not antagonistic toward the victim.
Summerlynn Sigler, an English teacher, said there were some boys planning to beat up the victim once she returned to school, on the grounds that she was to blame if her attackers received life sentences.
Daisy Santoya, a ninth grader, said schoolmates had accused her of snitching and told her to watch her back after she went to the police with information.
And some exasperated students said they could not understand why this particular rape was such a big deal. “What happened was bad,” said Abraham Tejeda, a sophomore. “I’m not going to lie, but she shouldn’t have put herself in that situation.”
Fear may also play a role in the reactions. Lizeth Franco, the daughter of the principal and a senior at Richmond High, said she believed that many people were intimidated by the “no snitching” ethos. “People didn’t speak up because they were afraid,” Lizeth said, “not because they’re animals and savages."
Margarita Vargas, the first to report the rape to the police, is a former Richmond student. She told the 911 dispatcher, “Nobody wants to call the cops, so we decided to call the cops.”
The police department had assigned four officers to the dance, but they did not see their role as patrolling the perimeter of the campus. Similarly, school administrators chaperoning remained at the dance. There were no parent volunteers.
After a violent incident last year, the school district agreed to install bright lights in the courtyard and a new fence and security cameras around the campus. The project was in the works at the time of the rape; new lights have now been installed.
As Mr. Franco, the principal, surveyed the scene of the crime last week, he said he could not understand how the young men could have turned into a brutal mob. He also could not comprehend how bystanders could have done nothing.
“It baffles me,” he said as he pointed out the picnic table where the attack occurred. “It could have been my girl.”
Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and an adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, said patterns of social behavior changed when a group was involved. Individuals take less responsibility, he said, and are more likely to copy the behavior of those around them.
“Teenagers are particularly vulnerable,” Professor Plante said. “They are not so comfortable in their own skins and don’t have enough self-esteem to say, ‘This is wrong.’ ”
In a group discussion at the school, Jackie Solano, a slight 10th grader, said: “Why is there so much blame? How can people say things like that when most of them have sisters and mothers at home?”
“There’s something in me that wants to do something,” Jackie added. “But women are always put in second place in society.”

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