Editor’s Note: James A. Gagliano is a CNN law enforcement analyst and a retired FBI supervisory special agent. He also serves as an adjunct assistant professor at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
I’m 6’3” with tattoo arm sleeves and a shaved head. I served as an Army Ranger and an FBI SWAT team leader. I don’t look like someone you’d imagine as a poster child for the #MeToo movement.
But beware of judging the proverbial book by its cover.
The movement has exposed an alarming number of predators in our midst. It has also highlighted how many people have been affected and have chosen to keep their instances of abuse secret.
If left to my own devices, I would have also kept my story buried – in a southern high school in the 1970s.
But one evening after church, while dining at a local Wendy’s restaurant with my family, I confided in my younger sister the tale of a male faculty member who had made advances toward me in his office.
My sister was astonished as I related the sordid details of a conversation he had shared with me about sex, girls, his own sexual prowess and what he bragged he could do to young virgins of either gender.
As I listed the details of several conversations we had shared and how he had tried convincing me to join him at his apartment so he could “show me,” my voice quavered. My sister squeezed my hand and said, “You must tell mom and dad.”
After relating the story to my parents later that evening at home, they told me how proud they were of me for speaking up.
Still, I felt like I had betrayed a teacher/confidant who was almost like a friend to me.
They patiently explained how it was the teacher who had broken the sacred trust between scholar and student. But what of my actions? Had I not encouraged him by arriving early before class and hanging out inside his office? Maybe it was me who had sparked his inappropriate behavior. Could I have inadvertently led him on with my curious questions after he had shared his stories of his sex life?
Once again, if left to my own devices, I would have figured out some way to politely disengage and decline his invitations. Maybe I would avoid his classes. Maybe I could keep quiet and avoid snitching.
But it didn’t end that way. My parents immediately scheduled an appointment with the principal, which led to a meeting with the district’s superintendent.
From there, I had a meeting scheduled with the county attorney at the school district’s offices. My parents patiently explained to me what a deposition was and that I would be compelled to tell my story in front of an assembled group of adults. I had to be completely honest, they cautioned, and spare no details. I would be questioned by the county’s attorney and by an attorney representing the teacher in question.
And then my dad softly informed me that the teacher would be in the room as well.
I steeled myself for the encounter. My parents provided support and encouragement and said they would be with me throughout the ordeal.
But when we prepared to enter the deposition room, a law enforcement officer put his arm across the threshold and advised my parents that they weren’t allowed to be in the room as I provided testimony. My eyes welled up with tears, and I looked back at them in a panic.
My dad placed his hand upon my shoulder, and after a brief argument with the officer, turned and looked me squarely in the eyes: “You can do this, son,” he said. “Be brave. Just tell the truth. Do you want this to happen to any other kid? Only you can stop that from happening.”
I glanced over at my mom, whose hands were shaking. She nodded at me, mouthing the words, “I love you.”
I turned and entered the room. There was a long table, and across from the seat that an attorney had instructed me to take sat my former teacher. He had just been removed from his position at the school, and some people weren’t happy about that. Few could believe he would proposition a kid.
I sat down, scooted my chair in and took a deep breath. Then I turned to face the man I was accusing. He nodded. I nodded back. I took another deep breath and heard the county attorney ask me to state my name for the record.
The rest is a blur. I answered questions from the county attorney and then I answered more questions from an attorney representing the teacher – whom I recall to be gentle and sensitive as he questioned me about a written statement I had provided.
The entire ordeal lasted about an hour. I had never been so scared in my life. Not having my parents in the room made me feel alone and lost in a world of legal maneuverings and uncomfortable topics. And all the while, I could feel the teacher’s eyes boring into me.
He never spoke. He knew my words were truthful. He knew his career was about to be irrevocably altered.
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The teacher never returned to my school. We later learned he left the district and moved back to his home state.
My faith in the system provides hope that he wasn’t able to find similar work in a position that would allow him to prey on other children. But the scandals recently uncovered in society’s most-vaunted institutions – the Catholic Church, Hollywood and Congress – indicate that anything is possible.
In my case, the system did work to protect me. I only wish it hadn’t failed so many others.