My Twins Were Sexually Harassed On Zoom During School — When I Reported It, Their Principal Called Them Liars

Photo: Elena Yakusheva / Shutterstock
Sad tween girl

If a sexual predator enters a 7th-grade Zoom classroom and no one but the children sees it, did it really happen at all?

It depends on who you ask.

While my kids' 7th grade teacher was simultaneously leading a real-life classroom and conducting lessons over Zoom, a strange man managed to log in to the meeting.

He was naked. He was masturbating.

My kids were stunned by what they saw. They ran to my home office to get me, but by the time I arrived, the man had left, shouting obscenities on his way out of the Zoom room.

My kids had the courage to come forward about being Zoom bombed by a sexual predator — and the adults they had been told to trust failed to protect them.

Not only that, they dismissed their claims as lies.

News of Zoom bombs like this isn’t new. There were a number of them reported across the country.

But what we need to talk about is the lasting damage society caused these kids after the bombs occurred, when they tried to speak up and were ignored.

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My tween children saw a man’s penis in an aggressively sexual way — not unlike the New Yorker staff who witnessed with their colleague Jeffrey Toobin.

But their teacher did not witness it. He had been facing his real-life students, heard the swearing, and rushed over to the computer, only to see a black box disappear.

So the teacher apologized to the students, shrugged and went on his way.

Not one student told the teacher about what they had seen, not even mine. It was too embarrassing, they told me later, to speak up like that in class.

I contacted the school and left a message. I made a post on social media to see if any other parents had seen the offender. At least one said she did.

Soon, we received a generic email, addressing several Zoom breaches.

Some teachers, while trained in online learning, had not used the password function for the meetings. Others allowed anyone who had their passwords into the virtual room, meaning friends of students could get in and cause trouble.

“This is something we are taking very seriously,” they wrote. “We have already communicated additional security measures our teachers can take to avoid this type of behavior in the future.”

The next day, I got a call from the principal. “I don’t think that happened,” he said.

He had talked with my daughters’ teacher, who explained that he hadn’t seen anything and that none of the students had come forward during class that day.

Right off the bat, I was dealing with a school leader who alleged that my children made it up.

Lily Tsui, a sexual-violence prevention consultant, says this is the most common reaction to a woman claiming sexual assault or harassment, and that it stems from misogyny.

“We can’t seem to solve the problem of sexual violence, so let’s just say girls and women lie about it because if we can convince ourselves of that, then our main problem is people lying as opposed to perpetrators feeling like they entitled to girls or women sexually,” she said.

The classes aren’t recorded so there was no tape to check.

Just my two little girls saying it happened, and two grown men saying it didn’t.

As for the other parents on Facebook confirming their children also saw it? The principal roundly reprimanded me for that.

“If something like this happens again,” he said, “don’t go to social media with it. Come to us and we’ll work it out directly.”

Now, we’re not only liars, but we’re troublemakers.

It’s a well-worn pattern my girls will have to get used to as they grow up.

Statistics show they will most likely be assaulted at some point.

About 81% of women report experiencing some form of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetimes. One in five experience attempted or completed rape — and one in three of those are between the ages of 11 and 17. Like my children.

And most know from personal experience that trying to talk openly about it will earn indignation and outrage from the power structure.

“Sexual violence continues to be rampant because we want to believe it’s less prevalent than it actually is,” Tsui said. “Society wants to live under the illusion that it’s rare when in fact it’s so common that what’s actually rare are girls and women who have never been victimized.”

As women, not only must we go through this, we then must report it, and we must do it by checking all the correct boxes men assume we would.

Not reporting is something that happens regularly, and not just among students, Tsui said.

Why would someone tell an authority figure if they know they’re not going to be believed? And why would they put themselves through that scrutiny for a made-up story?

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“If nothing else, the climate is so hostile to girls and women and victims of sexual violence that it becomes less likely people will lie about it because accusers suffer more than the accused,” she said.

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What if this had happened on school grounds? Does it make a difference that it happened on the internet? Is the school responsible? Is anyone?

We never got any resolution, other than the school saying they would take more privacy precautions.

But they never believed us. They remained unmoved in their opinion that my kids had made this up.

They were sorry for “whatever happened,” but they had decided it wasn’t what my kids said it was.

“The idea that girls and women lie about victimization is part of that illusion,” Tsui said. “I’ve been working in violence prevention for over two decades and literally the most important single thing people can do is believe survivors.”

To have my children, who were just trying to learn about tectonic plates, be subjected to an erect penis in class is bad. To have them report it to a trusted adult and be disbelieved is worse.

They learned something in school that day. They learned not to report sexual assault.

They learned society doesn’t think it’s a big deal. They learned they would be ostracized for trying to fix the problem.

They learned, perhaps, that they were the problem.

They’re not the problem. The structure is the problem. The patriarchy is the problem.

As parents, we need to do all we can to protect our kids, and sometimes that means being loud and being persistent. And most of all, it means believing them and validating them when something traumatic happens.

Don’t let things slip because “it’s just online.” Don’t let people in power call the shots if those shots are hurtful, even if it is the easier road to take. Don’t assume these instances won’t affect your children profoundly and over time.

Yes, it is our main job as parents to make sure our kids feel safe.

I hope the world at large will start to feel the same before they grow up.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, help is available. Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

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Darlena Cunha is a former television producer turned freelance journalist and mother of twins. She writes for TIME Magazine, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and Dame Magazine, amid others. You can find her on Twitter.