In last Saturday’s column, I relied on teenagers at Richmond High to help me understand how gang rape became a spectator sport on their San Francisco Bay area campus. They explained that bystanders who watched the assault on a 15-year-old girl outside their homecoming dance last month may have been too afraid to intervene. Or they didn’t feel compelled to help because the victim wasn’t in their clique. Or they were simply paralyzed by shock, fixated as if the violent scene was a snippet from a reality TV show.
This week, the adults weighed in via letters, e-mail and phone calls. They singled out neglectful parents and inept school officials; rap music and “race-mixing,” video games and violent TV.
And while many readers blasted the kids for selfishness and “lame excuses,” others took a broader view:
The rape -- and the troubling indifference by student witnesses -- are the product of long-simmering immorality, indulgence and insensitivity.
“We live in a world where too many people try to do whatever they can get away with,” wrote Rosemary Carter. “All standards, morals, ethics and diligence have been thrown aside. . . . There is no institution that hasn’t been corrupted,” she said, from schools, to the family, to the financial system.
“How are children supposed to learn to value themselves and others? I can understand how they could be confused.”
When a public tragedy like this occurs, it is our instinct -- our responsibility, even -- to try to understand it. We look for clues to its cause, its meaning in personal stories, official actions and social forces.
Are the kids deranged? Did the school do something wrong? Is this just a reflection of a violent culture?
That process is going on now in Ft. Hood, Texas, in the aftermath of Thursday’s deadly base attack. The Muslim background of the presumed killer has emerged as a salient factor because religious and political views may have prompted the massacre.
In the Richmond gang rape case, I was surprised that so many readers made race the subtext. And they took me to task for not mentioning the race of the victim or her attackers.
“The discomfort you folks feel in acknowledging racial attacks on whites prevents you from writing the facts,” one reader’s e-mail said.
I admit to feeling “discomfort” as I tried to get a grip on the racial dimensions of the assault. The victim was white; her attackers were described to me by students as mostly Latino, with one black and one white.
But I didn’t mention race in my column because I don’t believe that explains the attack. None of the teenagers mentioned race until I pressed them on it; several even thought the victim was Latina.
Even the girl who summoned police that night couldn’t answer when the 911 dispatcher asked, “Is she black or white?” She’d heard only that the victim was naked, “probably intoxicated,” and young, “like a ninth-grader.”
I left out race because it’s too easy to fixate on that, to settle on a “those people” explanation that lets everyone else off the hook.
Gang rape -- and bystander inaction -- didn’t migrate here from across the border; it’s not the province of any one ethnic group, income level or generation.
Just ask the woman who told me about the gang rape of her college roommate at a fraternity party in 1972 on the University of Virginia campus. It was gossip fodder on campus, but the girl was too ashamed to come forward.
“It was never reported, no one was ever arrested and all the perpetrators are now probably lawyers [and] businessmen,” she wrote.
“I wonder if those who are calling the Richmond teens animals and savages would say the same of those white boys who laughed and joked for weeks about this gang rape. I wonder if those rich white boys have ever had pangs of conscience,” she wrote.
The students I talked to at Richmond High are clearly having “pangs of conscience.” Even though none whom I interviewed witnessed the attack, they admit that the “everybody keeps to themselves” culture at their school may have contributed to the malaise.
But it was what I saw and heard from adults on the campus last week that troubled me more.
The school is one of district’s newest campuses. Yet the schoolyard was dotted with litter, the bulletin boards in the foyer were blank and the display cases outside the auditorium were almost pitiably empty.
I’d expected an overflow crowd when the campus hosted a school board meeting four days after the attack to discuss safety issues. Yet, only a handful of parents and teachers showed up. And most of the audience members were from neighborhood residents’ groups or violence prevention programs.
Even the account of a sobbing student -- who claimed that security guards left the homecoming dance early and that school officials spotted a group of young men loitering on campus but did nothing -- drew little outrage from the crowd and no response from school officials.
I ran that scenario by an educator I trust. Stephen Strachan spent several years as principal of Jordan High in Watts -- and turned its lawless culture around -- before leaving this year to run a middle school in Marin City, not far from Richmond High.
There’s no excuse for what happened in Richmond, he said. Something about that campus “said to those men that it’s all right to be there, to hang around, to feel free to rape a girl for two hours.”
It’s not a question of how many security guards you have, or where you station armed officers. That homecoming dance should have been packed with teachers, not because they were being paid, “but because they’re making an investment,” he said.
And those kids at the dance who heard about the rape on a text message or were watching in the crowd should have had at least one adult in that gym that they trusted enough to walk across the campus and tell.