Columnist Lynne Marie Wanamaker: Words a powerful response to violence


Published: 4/19/2018 5:49:48 PM

Earlier this month, the Gazette reported findings of “unauthorized modifications” to a bathroom at Northampton High School. Subsequent findings of photographic images of people using that restroom on a custodian’s laptop resulted in criminal charges against him and his dismissal from employment (“Custodian fired from school job after arrest,” April 5).

This alleged crime represents an egregious violation of trust and respect. Many of us are now living with powerful, complex emotions from hearing this news.

Statements from Northampton High School Principal Bryan Lombardi and Northampton Police Department Chief Jody Kasper suggest that the investigations into this incident moved swiftly and effectively, and that commitment to student dignity and privacy continue to drive the institutional responses to these alleged crimes.

Why is this insufficient to calm our feelings — whether we feel outrage, fear, sadness or shock?

When incidents like the one at NHS are discussed in a community, they have far-reaching effects. They impact not only the students who know they were violated, but all who wonder if we might have been similarly dehumanized. For those of us who know we have been harassed, abused, or assaulted before, such revelations can reopen old wounds. And because these alleged violations were perpetrated against minor students, they deeply affect adults charged with keeping young people safe.

In situations like this, our compassion and outrage is ignited — but we sometimes have difficulty connecting those strong feelings to effective action. We want to show up for one another, we want to support NHS students and their parents, we want to console survivors who are being reminded of old hurts, and we want to take steps to ensure that violations like this are prevented in the future. But we don’t always know how.

At Safe Passage, we believe everyone has a role to play in responding to and preventing interpersonal violence. Research tells us that one of the most essential things that helps people heal from trauma is human connection and empathic witness. We also know that the long-term emotional impacts of trauma can be lessened if support and connection are offered early and without stigma.

As we discuss this incident — and the many incidents coming to light through the #MeToo movement — our words matter. Survivors are always listening. Survivors are in every office, every classroom, in most families and social groups. We can contribute to healing by bringing empathic witness to our Facebook feeds, our checkout line conversations, our dinner tables.

We can say, “No one deserves to be treated like that.” We can say, “There is only one person who deserves to feel shame for this crime, and that is the person who perpetrated it.” We can say, “I am so sorry this happened.” We can say, “I don’t even know what to say, but I stand with those kids.” We can say, “Survivors in this community are not alone.”

We are living in a moment of profoundly shifting social norms. Conduct that might have been brushed off in the past is being recognized as damaging and abusive. And any one of us can add to the momentum of this positive social change.

When we learn that someone’s privacy has been breached, we can say, “That’s an unacceptable boundary violation.” When we hear language that dehumanizes someone, we can say, “Don’t use that word, it’s degrading.” When we witness or experience unconsented touch, we can say, “Stop. That’s not OK.”

We often feel powerless to stop violence. But while the responsibility for any assault lies solely with the individual who perpetrates it, all of us have enormous power to respond. If we have been hurt ourselves, we can do the brave work of healing. If we learn of another’s hurt, we can do the compassionate work of witness. And when we see behaviors that contribute to violence, we can do the bold work of challenging them.

Safe Passage is here for survivors of domestic violence and relationship abuse. Our hotline is staffed 24/7, toll-free at 888-345-5282 or 413-586-5066. To get involved in our prevention efforts, visit

Lynne Marie Wanamaker is the deputy director of Safe Passage in Northampton.

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