On March 12th, 2017, Russell Shaw emailed GDS parents saying that middle school history teacher and high school coach Mark Allen-Gifford had been arrested the previous day for sexual misconduct against a student. Hours later, C.A. Pilling emailed high school students, relaying the same news. Within a week, news sources like WJLA, NBC4 Washington, WTOP and the Washington Post all broke the updated story: the eighth-grade teacher was detained for meeting a 14-year-old girl outside of school “several times,” talking about sex with her, kissing her, and allegedly touching her thigh. Even one year later, the GDS community, and the world at large, is still dealing with the impact of crimes like Allen-Gifford’s.
Although Allen-Gifford didn’t teach at the high school, many GDS students still knew him, either from taking his middle school history classes or playing on one of his sports teams. Since several students had a close relationship with Allen-Gifford, the news of his arrest was met by shock from the community. A few days into the JV baseball season, Athletic Director Kathy Hudson told the team that Allen-Gifford would be out for the remainder of the season, without explanation, and that she would find them a new full-time head coach. At this point, many members of the team felt sorry for Allen-Gifford; they figured that he was forced to leave so he could attend to his father because Allen-Gifford often reminded his players that his father was ill. Once they found out that Allen-Gifford had been arrested, their feelings shifted from sympathy to anger, disbelief, and sadness. Soon, each member of the high school was burdened with the weight of the depressing situation.
I knew Mark Allen-Gifford because he was my eighth grade teacher and the faculty advisor to a gender equality club that I started with three girls in my grade. The club, dubbed We Are the Fifty One, originated from a project that junior Jenna Schulman made for Allen-Gifford’s class. Schulman’s idea was to chronicle the history of women’s rights in America, but Allen-Gifford thought that Schulman’s idea had the potential to become a national campaign for middle schoolers about the importance of gender equality. Juniors Sarah Cooper, Lucy Walker, and I were all intrigued by Schulman’s idea, so we joined her team and eventually made a website for the project. Allen-Gifford, a self-proclaimed feminist and social justice advocate, helped us turn Schulman’s idea into a club. He was the driving force behind our group and even paid for expenses like website costs and trademark fees. We frequently texted with him throughout the process of starting this club, and he even met with us on weekends and during the summer to discuss our plan. His seeming devotion to gender equality, though, left us with many unanswerable questions when we heard the shocking news about his arrest. How could someone who started a gender equality club commit such an obvious act of sexual misconduct? Was his passion for women’s rights merely a facade? Did he have ulterior motives for wanting to work with young women?
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Not long after Allen-Gifford’s arrest, on October 5th, 2017, The New York Times reported that Harvey Weinstein, film magnate and founder of The Weinstein Company, had received dozens of accusations of sexual misconduct over the span of 30 years. Within weeks, over 80 other women came forward to accuse Weinstein of sexual assault, exposing the “open secret” of rape culture that existed within his company and sparking a revolutionary movement that would empower sexual assault victims everywhere to open up about their experiences. The movement became synonymous with the hashtag “#MeToo,” a phrase which many victims posted on social media as a gesture of solidarity to other victims. Within weeks, with the onset of “Me Too,” several powerful people became the subjects of accusations of misconduct, including Al Franken, Roy Moore, Mario Batali, Louis C.K., Larry Nassar and Kevin Spacey.
Although Allen-Gifford committed his crime far before the outbreak of the “Me Too” movement, his case is emblematic of our society’s treatment of women. Similar to men like Weinstein, Batali, and Nassar, Allen-Gifford abused his position of power to attract a young student for his own sexual gain. Allen-Gifford betrayed the girl’s trust in many ways because he was not only her teacher, but also the faculty head of We Are the Fifty One, a club which the girl belonged to, and a club that established Allen-Gifford as an opponent to the abuse of women. While the abuse of trust and of power is a central theme of the “Me Too” movement, Allen-Gifford separates himself from other perpetrators because he presented himself as an ally. Allen-Gifford’s case proves that even men who are well-versed (or appear well-versed) in conventions of women’s rights are still prone to taking advantage of the women around them.
Just as our country has recently seen a rise in the number of celebrities accused of sexual abuse with the “Me Too” movement, there has been a comparable rise in the number of teachers accused of committing such crimes against students. In a study conducted by Drive West Communications, a firm that tracks incidents of sexual misconduct by teachers, investigations into “alleged inappropriate teacher-student relationships” in Texas have grown by 27 percent between 2012 and 2015. Similarly, Drive West Communications reports that Kentucky and Alabama have both experienced an uptick in such allegations. The same report relates that 36 percent of those accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a student initiated the interaction via social media. These cases are particularly upsetting because they convey that even teachers, supposed role models, are susceptible to violating our trust by committing heinous crimes. It’s imperative, though, that we don’t lose faith in teachers altogether; instead, we must focus on hiring those that we think would make the most positive impact on students.
While the crimes committed by teachers and the celebrities overlap in certain ways, the question of consent is central to these allegations of misconduct. Although men like Weinstein and Batali were accused of foregoing consent to commit sexual acts, Allen-Gifford’s case is more complicated because the girl that he was accused of abusing was only 14 and thus legally too young to give consent. Irrespective of whether the girl happily participated in the relationship with Allen-Gifford, his actions are condemnable because the girl was unable to give consent and because he exploited the power dynamics between a teacher and student.
Even in a progressive place such as GDS, we’re not immune to having a harmful male culture. Since no community is perfect, we need to teach men, at even the youngest ages, to respect women if we want to stop the abuse of women. The “Me Too” movement serves as the first step in this education process for men because it teaches them that they can never escape culpability for their actions. Some groups at GDS, like the recently-formed Boys Leading Boys and Summit on Sexual Assault and Consent, assist in this process but will never be able to solve the issue without the tacit participation of men everywhere.
While the trend of cases of sexual abuse, especially within schools, has continued to grow, hopefully, the “Me Too” movement will serve as a deterrent to potential perpetrators by demonstrating the power of the victim. Unfortunately, a change in the social climate around sexual abuse would never have been possible without the shocking stories revealed as part of this movement. Going forward, all men must partake in conversations regarding sexual assault to carry on the legacy of the brave women who started the movement.
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In December of 2017, Allen-Gifford’s case was decided by the DC superior court. He pled guilty to the “misdemeanor sexual abuse of a child or minor,” and was sentenced to serve two years of probation, to pay a small fee for the Victims of Violent Crimes Act, and to register as a sex offender. Although Allen-Gifford avoided imprisonment, many sexual assaulters such as Nassar will likely serve jail time. The messages of the “Me Too” movement, however, will never be locked away.
By Zach Blank ’19