Why I left: Taking a Stand Against Sexual Harassment
PART 1: WHY I STAYED
I honestly don't feel like a victim in this story. Perhaps, that's maybe one of the more messed up parts. I didn't know I was being groomed to tolerate abuse by my instructor for a long time. Then I felt it was due MY personality flaws that he became so cruel when I wouldn't let him snap my bra strap.
When I graduated college and left my home town I hated karate. I hated what I endured. Hated that the instructor had no repercussions. I hated that the supervising instructor, who I told my grievances, told me to just get along with him better.
Until 2016 I continued to feel my loud mouth, my defiant nature, my unyielding beliefs that women should have the same rules and expectations created a perfect storm for his hatred. He belittled me at events. He undermined my decision making. He obviously scored and judged my matches differently when I was at the mercy of his power. But still, I felt I did this. I created this tension. I never considered leaving. The organization was good. He is a bad person that I somehow provoked into hating me. But karate is good. The group is good. The other instructors, although imperfect, are good. He is the bad apple. Why would I cut down the tree?
September 2016 a fellow female instructor divulged to me, harassment and intimidation she received recently.
You see, I had spoken during a training weekend we were both attending. At a seminar about teaching children safety, I told a lesson I teach to my students often.
You treat responsible adults with respect. PERIOD
But when an adult is behaving irresponsibly, YOU DONT OWE THEM ANYTHING. Not a bow. Not a thank you. Not a sorry. NOTHING.
I am a responsible adult, I continue my parable. As a responsible adult, I will never pull to the side of the road an ask a 6 year old to help me locate my lost puppy. I will never ask a child I don't know to follow me to an isolated room. That is irresponsible. And that kid doesn't owe me A THING.
This woman and I have know each other for 20+ years, but we aren't close. We don't keep up with each other about our families. We don't drink wine or coffee together. So when she asked to talk with me privately, I was a little surprised. She tells me that an instructor sexually and emotionally harassed her, then physically intimidated her. Now again, we don't chat. We don't share stories. So aside from what she witness when we were growing up in the dojo together, she doesn't know that this same instructor sexually, emotionally, physically harassed me as well. I would not be shocked if she knew I didn't like him, didn't tolerate him, that has been the case for the last 10 years. But as far as what he did to me, other than rumors or her eyes, I had not shared this with her. He had said things to her while she was at his house. She told me what. Things that made her fear he might rape her. She said in the seconds that followed those words, she also thought that if he wanted to rape her, she couldn't stop him. She is maybe 5'3" 110 pounds. He is easily a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier. And remember, nearly her who life he has demonstrated his power over and over again in the dojo. She says she numbly and quickly retreated to her car as fast as scared legs will travel. It took her 2 weeks to tell her husband. The same amount of time to tell the same supervising instructor I told 10 years earlier. Additionally afterward, at the dojo he continued to intimidate her. She admits her fear may have clouded how mean he was or wasn't but her fear is the real story. He scared her so bad she trembled when she came into the dojo and heard that loud booming voice. She fought off nausea. She fought off just leaving. But she couldn't leave. This is her place. This is where she belongs. This is where her friends are. This has grown into her personality. This is a part of her identity. Leaving never crossed her mind. I understand that. I was there too. She, as grown as she is now, at this moment was me when I was 15. She still sees him in infallible glory. She still see him as powerful. Almighty. She still sees the power he has. She has no other dojo of her own. Her dojo is his dojo. She sees fighting against him as losing her place of belonging. That seems scarier than him making her feel like he could rape her.
What I see is this, I was wrong. Stupidly, Stupidly, wrong. It wasn't just me. I wasn't just the problem. I let this sit for 10 years. I let this grow by inaction. I kept my students safe, me safe, my daughter safe. But what about everyone else? I failed them. I failed myself as an advocate for others.
I conference call the supervising instructor. He spent 30 minutes victim blaming her. Trying to insinuate she was making it up, blowing it out of proportion, or wanting it. The ugly stereotypical response, almost playing out cartoonishly textbook. He tells me she just wants rank. He tells me that HE hasn't seen anything inside the dojo. He says he can't be responsible for what his teachers to do students outside the dojo. He says sometimes strong personality people just have problems with each other. The supervising instructor says the accused instructor is too important to the organization to be met with any of the recommended reprimands I propose. Those included: Not being around the victim, not being allowed to instruct other students due to a clear history of abusing power, to not be in charge at events thus further demonstrating an "ok" of his behavior by the organization. I am shaking while listening to the supervising instructor. I am so cold with disbelief my teeth are chattering. I am sweating though. I ask him to verify his response again. But he's known these allegations for months, I have just been processing this for days. He says again, he is too valuable. He is too important. Nothing further will be done.
"Ok" I say. "Good bye" I announce. "What the hell just happened" I wonder.
I confer. I think. I confer. I think. This is incredible. I am honestly lost. How many other students just left. She and I, we were groomed by karate to believe we needed karate so badly we should endure him. How many others just left without word. How many more in the future? Which of my friends little girls will have to tell the next part of this story? My supervising instructor made it clear, this is a non issue. Nothing will be pursued. So I write it all down. I email 15 maybe 20 black belts and instructors. If he is hell bent on sweeping this under the rug, I will rip the carpet apart. He does not have a right to hide information that directly impacts other students. I get physically ill over the next weeks as the responses roll in. My email notification sound becomes a source of overwhelming anxiety.
"This doesn't surprise me, that probably is the saddest part" -- One black belt says
"He's always shown poor decision making and we all know he isn't appropriate" --another recounts
"You are brave in writing this, I support you" --someone responds
"He's always been creepy" --more concede
"You are out of line sending this"
" You are unprofessional"
"This isn't how you handle this, you talk to the supervising instructor" (in the email I noted all my attempts at that)
I continue to demand. I demand from 3 regional heads for a formal statement. For a formal conclusion. For a formal stance on this issue. Behind my back they say I'm making this up. They say I want belt rank out of this. They say this is a "Him and Her" problem. They ignore emails. I write more emails. They say they are looking into "It" I demand deadline dates for statement. Deadlines pass. Months pass. They say they will investigate. More months pass. They call 2 people. My husband being one of the two. They don't call other local instructors who are directly effected by the accused instructor. When I say the accused "Under investigation" should not be allowed to attend an over night communal cabin weekend they say "we don't need to pander to Liz's feelings." They bring up ME being the issue once again. They say he is being supervised during classes but immediately tell how this is "really hurting their relationship with him" in having to "do all this." They talk about his childish response to any supervision but make sure to say I am over reaching in requiring corrective action. They say they will talk to him. Months more pass. They say in the past he's had to be asked to leave the dojo for times but refuse to disclose what he did during those times. The say all along, since the beginning, now over a year later, that the Chief instructor knows all of this. They make sure he knows. He is in the loop.
The accused instructor eggs another teacher into a conversation. "Did you hear about all this stuff?' Yes the teacher says. The accused continues, "It will all blow over. The chief instructor knows. When this happens in other dojos, it just blows over." He boasts. He has no fear.
It’s now September 2017. One year after I first heard her allegations. One year and a month since the supervising instructor was made aware. There is no formal statement. There is no policy change. He is still teaching, reportedly while supervised. But there is no formal statement, so I am unsure what is taking place. He is still attending events. He sits at head tables and given awards. Others line up to bow to him. He is announced as an esteemed instructor and leader in the organization. He is given honorable praise in front of hundreds of students, their parents, and community participants. In many places he is the highest ranked person. The top.
I draft a sexual harassment policy (nearly identical to the state government policy), I recommend an elected diverse committee where students and instructors can safely report grievances, I recommend a behavioral policy be drafted for instructors to follow, and that instructors have back ground checks before being an instructor under the name of this organization. For over 2 weeks it is entirely ignored. I email again. I am told the chief instructor has received it. He was included in the email recipients but did not response himself. They take to talking about me again. I am out of line for this proposal. The chief instructor is handling this. I am disrespectful. This is a "Liz and Him" problem. Liz will never he happy with any idea that is not hers.
No other ideas have ever been presented to me in the over 15 years since he began sexually harassing me.
I've stayed this last year fearing what would happen to other people's students if I didn't continue to demand action, change, and improved policy. No one else has been willing to stand up and demand anything. They are all respectfully, waiting for the leaders to make a decision. A decision 14 months later, they still refuse to make. I boycotted events. I kept my students safe. But I cannot ignore everyone else's students. He travels, he sits at head tables, at tests, he educates the next generation. He is given gifts, and praise, and unwavering respect.
But I've reached the top rung. And their apathy is abhorrent, dangerous, and egotistical.
So I've left. My dojo remains, without their symbol. The one that no longer represents my place, or a place I want to be. But in my leaving I give this. A warning. A wake up call. A slap in the face. An option to do better. I leave you. I leave you with the weight of your choices. I leave you. I leave you with your inaction. I leave you.
To all of you who demand the right thing, I support you. I see you. I appreciate you. To all of you fighting your own battles, you are not alone. It feels lonely. It often doesn't feel worth it. They will call you names. They will hurt your heart. Don't give up. Don't give in. Always do what is right. Even when it is terribly unpopular. Surround yourself with people who make you think. That challenge you to do better, be better, and inspire better. If you feel like you are sinking, find me or others who will help hold you up. I know it feels like you will drown at time, but air is there. Just breathe.