Sunday, August 05, 2012

No way to treat a lady

Readercon, a very well-regarded annual convention with a strong literary bent, met July 15-17 in Framingham, Massachusetts. I know a number of people who attended, including Howard Waldrop. While at the convention, author Genevieve Valentine was sexually harassed by a prominent fan, later identified as Rene Walling (I had to look up this mook's picture, because honestly I can't tell from the name if this was a man or a woman, and these days you get sexual harassment among the same gender - I was the subject of a groping from a male employee at a newspaper 20 years ago).

Apparently, Valentine went back home and wrote up her experience, and then filed a formal complaint against Walling with the convention board of directors. Then things went south. Walling didn't deny the facts, and was penitent - as you see from Valentine's post, he tried to approach her at the con and tried to apologize to here then. But at that point, Valentine didn't want to have anything to do with him, and he should have backed off.

The problem with the way the con handled Valentine's complaint is that it had a zero tolerance on sexual harassment, but instead of following its own stated policy of banning the miscreant for life, they announced that Walling was banned for two years. When it was announced, in places such as on Locus on-line, a firestorm erupted.

Now, you can argue about the wisdom of zero tolerance policies in general. My experience is that zero tolerance policies get implemented when people complain about how discipline is handled and the powers that be in whatever organization we are dealing with decide they can't deal with the bitching and decide its easier to treat everyone the same however harshly that may be. The problem is that when a policy is not subject to appeal or mitigation you will discover you forgot a lot of complications and loose ends.

Discipline is a big issue in public schools, and that is really where zero tolerance took hold. School administrators got tired of getting griped at by parents. But zero tolerance can have some stupid consequences. For examples, many schools have a zero tolerance policy on fighting regardless of who started the fight. As a journalist, I can attest to many cases where one kid starts to whip up on another kid without provocation, and the second kid fights back to defend himself. I have seen cases where, even when there were witnesses who attest to the fact there was a definite victim and aggressor, the school disciplined both. The zero tolerance policy means the victim was supposed to run away and find a teacher. I'm sorry, but if someone punches me in the face, going to find a teacher is NOT my first thought.

In a related case, a student borrowed his big brother's car to drive to high school, and following a sweep of the cars in the parking lot, the school administration found a can of beer in the back seat. Even though both the father and older brother backed up the student's story, it didn't matter - alcohol was found in a student's vehicle - and he was sent to in-school suspension.

Closer to home, while serving as a public school board member almost 20 years ago, while we were considering a zero tolerance policy on weapons in school, I pointed to the provision that said a student would be automatically expelled if a weapon was found in his locker. I pointed out that, as written, if someone slipped a knife through a vent in a student's locker, and then gave the school administration an "anonymous tip" to search the locker, the student would be expelled. In fact, I pointed out to my fellow board members that since there were no qualifications in the policy, if a student was being expelled and was being marched down the hallway towards the front door, if that student deftly slipped a knife through an air vent into someone's locker as he walked past, that owner of that locker would have to be expelled.

The board members agreed there needed to be some culpability added to the policy.

Getting back to the Readercon fiasco, there can be a lot of second guessing on the subject. Was Mr. Walling drunk? Should Ms. Valentine simply slugged the pig in the con hallway? In the case I mentioned earlier, where a fellow employee grabbed me as we passed in a hallway, I turned to him on the spot, looked him in the eye, and said, "If you ever do that to me again, I will kill you." And I meant it, and that was the end of that. But I am a blunt guy, and I think that's not as direct an approach as some people would take.

You can debate the merits of a zero tolerance policy, but the Readercon policy at the time Valentine made her complaint was clear - expelled from the con for life (Walling admitted the facts) - and when the board of directors announced their decision, it provoked an uproar. My first reaction when it erupted was it would turn out to be another typical genre PC-shit storm - that's what most internet-based disputes are in the genre. But after reading up, I agree that the con board make a mistake of ad hoc amending their own bylaws because the guy was sorry and asked for forgiveness.

There are many people who go through the criminal justice system every day who are sorry for what they did. That doesn't affect the verdict. Now the sentence might vary, but that is at the discretion of the judge and the jury except when there is mandatory sentencing. In this case, there was a mandatory sentence, and the con board didn't follow it, which struck many people are inconsistent and unfair - including me.

After pondering the error of their ways, apparently the board of directors resigned and the whole convention board stepped in and set things right, as outlined in this report issued today.

A painful lesson, with a couple of final observations on my part. If someone's sexual harassment at a convention is so egregious, you probably need to call the police. Going back to the issue of school discipline I mentioned above, there are times when a student assault in a school rises to the level of a police response. Parents are usually asked to sign a waiver stating they allow their child to be under the discipline of the school, but this cannot be mandatory. I know of a case where one student's parent did not sign the waiver, but the school administration didn't think much of it because the student was a top scholar and never a problem. But one day some thug punched out the A student, and after the student called his father on a cell phone, dad called the police and reported the assault.

The police said, "the school has the authority to handle its own students' discipline" but the dad said "I never gave them that authority", because he never signed the waiver. After a quick check, both the school and the police realized dad was right, and since the facts of the assault were not disputed, the youthful thug was trotted off to juvenile jail.

I think any con - not just Readercon - should call the cops when someone is sexually harassed. This is too serious a matter to be handled by a bunch of amateurs.

And my final thought: The Readercon board wasn't doing Mr. Walling a favor by being lenient. Following the original decision, other people people stepped forward and revealed similar incidents. One of the, Kate Kligman, is specifically mentioned in the final report. If the Readercon board had followed its own policy at the time, this might not have come to light, or at least, not at this time.

If he had been smart, Walling should have voluntarily absconded and hoped his other misdeeds never came to light. Now, his reputation is atrocious. As I said way back near the start of my post, I never heard of the guy and didn't even know if he was a man or woman.

I know many policemen who say they've been thanked later by people they pulled over and arrested for DWI, when the person sobered up and told them "you probably saved my life." President George Bush has publicly said he didn't take his drinking in college seriously until he was cited two separate times for DWI. It made him realize he had a problem.

Being lenient sometimes is not the best solution, and hopefully Mr. Walling will learn a lesson from his public embarrassment, and people will feel safe at Readercon, and other cons, from being groped and grasped and harassed.

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