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Window gave child-sex-abuse victims a late chance for justice, but protections in Minnesota still must be strengthened

Child sex abuse in schools continues to be a massive problem. Background checks are better today, but lots of abusers still manage to move from one community to another without exposure.

Survivors of child sex abuse frequently don’t come forward until well into adulthood, when the painful consequences of the exploitation have a nasty tendency to to become unavoidable. Because deadlines for taking legal action are typically long expired, this has robbed generations of abuse victims of the chance for justice. After decades of lobbying, three years ago advocates finally persuaded the Legislature to pass the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which opened a window during which survivors could file claims normally disallowed as too old.

On Wednesday, May 25, that one-time window closes. By that deadline hundreds of Minnesotans will have pressed claims stemming most notoriously from abuse at the hands of Roman Catholic priests, but also by other clergy, scouting troop leaders, and other trusted adults given ready access to children. A shocking number of the abuses took place in the 1970s and 1980s.

The two of us are sex-abuse victims of that era, but our case will not be one of those filed during this special period. We were among a number of children abused by a teacher at the St. Paul Open School. Ironically, unlike the vast majority of the cases that will be heard in coming months and years, our exploitation was long ago the subject of a closed judicial proceeding where facts — ugly, damning facts — were established.

Seen at some 35 years’ remove, the details of our story have only grown worse. We know now that Jerry Jax acted with deliberate intent. He “groomed” the students he targeted and spent enormous energy maintaining social relationships with powerful adults who did in fact take his side when we exposed him. Some of them were also sexual predators who shared strategies for ensuring continued access to children. Some spent time in jail.

Many adults knew

A large number of adults knew. After a staff member at another school tumbled onto the information and reported him to the administration, the district fired Jax. He fought it, and astonishingly remained in the system for some two years. During that time many of the grownups in our school rallied around Jax, insisting that we were lying homophobes looking for someone to scapegoat for our teenaged misdeeds. Because after all, he was so selfless, he took a special interest in his students, leading trips and spending time with kids outside of the school day.

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Faced with so much hostility, we both quit going to school. The day in court, when it finally came, wasn’t even ours. The administrative law hearing where we testified separately before a judge was in fact held to determine whether the district had violated Jax’s due process rights.

Why didn’t we press for criminal charges? We were pushed not to, and told that if we did our families would be scrutinized — a thinly veiled threat to one of our parents who is gay.

After our testimony Jax offered to resign, provided he could keep his teaching license and leave with a clean record. The district, which had hired him after a Western Minnesota district made a similar bargain, agreed. He went on to teach again in California.

So why bring this up in public now? We’ve heard nothing satisfying about the abuse in the ensuing decades from the adults who stood by while two teenagers blew the whistle. Bizarrely, we’ve been commended in the recent past for having the courage to speak out, but no one has offered an explanation why it had to be us — kids — who did so. None of those who made us out to be the literal problem children has apologized.

Minnesota law sets a very high bar for lawsuits against public agencies and limits damages those injured can collect. So despite those undisputed facts, years of expensive litigation might not result in our case going forward. Our abuser is dead, so there is no point in using the courts to bring his actions to light so he can’t prey again.

A massive problem still

We write because child sex abuse in schools continues to be a massive problem. Background checks are better today, but lots of abusers still manage to move from one community to another without exposure. A report released just two years ago by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative wing of the U.S. Congress, estimated that almost 10 percent of students are subjected to sexual misconduct by teachers, coaches, principals, bus drivers and other personnel during their K-12 careers.

Few people who work in schools are trained to recognize early signs of predatory behavior. Few have gone so far in creating child protection protocols as the Children’s Theatre Company, where some of our contemporaries were abused in a scandal we believe was related.

In a February investigation USA Today gave Minnesota a “C” for efforts to keep predators out of schools. We do a great job conducting background checks, the paper found, but get low marks for our lack of transparency and for failing to share adequate information on teacher discipline with other states seeking to screen applicants for licensure.

In fact, you can go online today and search the state’s public database for our abuser’s license. You’ll find it, unblemished and valid three-plus decades after his utter failure to deny our allegations. There’s a record of events, but there was never a moment where the events involved naming our experience or recognizing the devastation it wrought.

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We’ve spent time together revisiting the damage done by the abuse. We’ve both built good lives, if at a steeper price than many of our friends. People we love were hurt as a result of what happened to us. Some of the hurt we ourselves inflicted in our pain and confusion.

In the end, it’s not all right that there will never come a moment when a community entrusted to protect and nurture us must acknowledge how badly some of its members failed and offer to make amends. As artificial a watershed moment as it is, May 25 is the closest we’re likely to get to a day of reckoning. Let it pass with no claim from us, but do not let it mark in your mind the moment when all abuse survivors have been heard.

Beth Hawkins and Jack Riebel both live in Minneapolis. Until recently Beth was a MinnPost staff writer.


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