Monday, September 9, 2019

Behavior to Character: A Transformation

Joanne Factor, Strategic Living
Several years ago a student in a six-week course expressed her discomfort with our discussion of recognizing "red flags" and connecting them to abusive behavior.  In our classes, a "red flag" is some sort of behavior that gets your attention because it pushes against one of your boundaries.  It could be a small boundary, it could be a micro-aggression, it could be significant.  Regardless, you experience discomfort (some instructors refer to this as "intuition" or "gut feeling") because it is a boundary violation.

"But what about character?" she asked, "doesn't the quality of one's character come into play?"  

I thought back to this conversation after hearing a recent story on NPR.  Last year a high school counselor in New Hampshire, Kristie Torbick,  pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 14-year old student.  She was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison.  The prosecutors had asked for 5-10 years.  The defense asked for leniency, and presented two dozen letters of support of the defendant's character.  In addition, twenty-five of the defendant's supporters came to the sentencing.  Some were family and friends and neighbors.  Some were colleagues.  The collective message was "she's not a predator, she just made a poor decision."

And it turned into a big deal.  Not the guilt of Torbick, but of the ethics and judgment of her supporters.  Remember, some of Torbick's supporters were colleagues who also work in schools with children.  Other community members, including parents, questioned how those professionals could defend a child sex offender and still be entrusted to work with children.

Let's pause and think of your position from these perspectives:
  • You're a parent and find out the counselor who works in your child's school has publicly supported another counselor who was convicted of child sexual assault.  How much confidence or trust would you have in that counselor?  
  • You're a school counselor, and another counselor you've known for a long time and held in high esteem is convicted of child sexual assault.  She's always been exceptionally helpful and generous to you as a colleague.  Do you feel she made a mistake, but isn't really a bad person?  Do you publicly support her?  How?
  • You're a school administrator and parents are coming to you about that school counselor who's testified in support of that other counselor who is now a convicted sex offender.  They no longer trust her around their children and want her gone.
Some of the professionals who did publicly support Torbick lost their jobs.  Several of those have brought lawsuits against the schools that fired them, claiming they were supporting Torbick's character and not her crime, and their free speech rights had been violated.

Which brings us to a sticky intersection of support and consequences.  Yes, Torbick was sentenced, she will be a registered sex offender the rest of her life, and I'm sure she lost her license and career after she's released from prison.  But what about the judgment of her supporters, their rights and responsibilities, and social consequences of speech?

(I'm sure some of you are flashing back to the trial of Dr. Larry Nassar.  He had a LOT of supporters.  Supervisors, college presidents, colleagues, friends.  That's how he got away with abusing his patients for a quarter-century.)

What did some of Torbick's supporters actually say?
  • Former colleague Shelley Philbrick:  "In all the years that I've known Kristie, both professionally and personally, she has always presented as a person who was engaged in helping to make the lives of others better."*  So far so good.  In my opinion, she could have added, "I am very disappointed in her recent actions.  After she pays her debt to society, I hope she finds a way to use her skills and talents to continue to make the lives of others better."  But she advocated for lenient sentencing, saying "to incarcerate Mrs. Torbick as part of any plea bargain would be a sad injustice to her own three children, one of which is only 3 years of age."**  Uhhh . . . I agree it's sad, and should there not be consequences for her actions?  
  • Therapist working with the incarcerated Torbick, Dr. Nancy Strapko:  "I don't think I've ever, ever actually uttered the words I seek mercy for this client. I do today. That's how sure I am that she's deserving."*  And "Kristie [Torbick] takes full responsibility for her actions with her 'victim.'  I put this in [quotes] because I am aware that her 'victim' was truly the pursuer in this case."**  So the therapist was blaming the 14 year old student for an adult professional's collapse of boundaries?
I would have hoped that these professionals could have supported Torbick while condemning her behavior and recognizing that justice needs to be served.  Any of us could be in a comparable situation, so I think it would benefit us all to consider what you want to be remembered as expressing in public.

Returning to the conversation with a student about behavior vs character.  I asked her, "How would I know someone's character if not through their behavior?"  What is character if not the cumulative effect of our experience of someone's behavior over time?  And when someone violates a huge boundary, breaches a code of ethics, crosses a unmistakable line in the sand -- knowledge of that has to add to and refine our assessment of their character, and not be disregarded because it contradicts everything we've previously seen.
Joanne Factor
First appeared in the August 2019 Strategic Living News and Views
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