Orting mayor speaks out about his own story of abuse amid ongoing controversy

Jun 21, 2019, 5:28 PM

Orting referee...

Orting School District buildings. (Orting School District)

(Orting School District)

Orting Mayor Josh Penner posted a lengthy Facebook message Thursday night, not only addressing the controversy plaguing his community, but revealing something very private about himself.

The messages is set against the backdrop of the Orting School District where a teacher has been placed on leave pending an investigation into sexual harassment. One alleged victim, Megan Hughes, has spoken out about the teacher who remains a district employee. She is not the only one.

“I believe Megan Hughes,” Mayor Penner wrote. “I believe her statement. I believe her to be a truthful person and she’s sharing her experience. But as Mayor, that’s not something I can just come out and say. Or I can say it, but who am I speaking for? Am I speaking for the city or am I speaking for myself?”

There’s a reason those lines are blurred for Penner. In his Thursday night message, he revealed what he had only told to a couple people his entire life — that he had been sexually assaulted as a child. You can read the full text here. Penner covers how he was abused by the son of a babysitter, and how that experience still affects his life. He discusses how he has failed other victims of abuse while serving in the Marines. And he discusses how this issue is affecting the Orting community.

Orting students allege abuse by teacher who is still employed

“For many years it was hard for me to bring it up,” he writes. “And certain visuals triggered my memory: just a certain kind of a knife would trigger my memory because there was a certain type of knife involved. So I’m not going to go into the details, of the assault. But, I will say that the healing process is not about forgetting that it happened, because the memories are always going to intrude. It’s about changing how they make you feel. So part of why I suppose I probably never told family or anybody else about it is because I didn’t like the way it made me feel.”

Orting community

Orting is growing, but it still has a small town vibe where gossip travels fast. Mayor Penner notes that the allegations against the Orting teacher have divided the community as information is spun into attacks.

“The angst I think is not about what Megan said, it’s about what everyone is saying about what Megan said,” Penner writes.

“It’s so hard for people to listen. Especially in something like this. Oftentimes, the predator is a family member, a friend, somebody with authority and trust. Somebody who nobody would ever suspect. And so it’s really hard for people to listen when somebody is telling a story that is just fantastic. Not in a good way. But it’s just something that nobody would expect.”

He came forward with his own story in solidarity with Hughes. For him it’s about listening to the message, not shooting the messenger. And while Orting’s current controversy is deeply felt, Penner feels it’s part of a larger story.

“People are sharing their stories they haven’t shared with anyone else. Those are stories outside the school district. They’re stories within families, they’re stories within their churches. This dynamic is not just a school district issue. But we are being exposed to it, because of what happened in the school district 10 years ago and maybe at other times.”

“I don’t want my story to be the story. I want the story to be centered around a community that wants to find resolution. Wants to do better at this. If that means there’s something I can do better or the city can do better through my administration, I want to find that.”

In response to Mayor Penner’s story, Hughes provided this statement:

I’m happy the school district has decided to re-investigate what happened to us. I’m heartbroken that other students have had to endure similar abuse, but their bravery and willingness to confront come forward brings validity to what Sheridan and I have known for years. My only hope is that we can provide a voice for the victims who’ve chosen to remain anonymous, as well as those who may never be ready to share their story.

I’ve received hundreds of messages from people who’ve decided to share stories of their own sexual abuse for the first time. When I initially shared my story on social media, it was a desperate attempt to get the school district to take a second look at an investigation I felt hadn’t been thoroughly executed. Now it’s grown into something much bigger. It’s clear to me that we need to take a second look at how we allow teachers to conduct themselves with their students. Hopefully this will lead to sweeping policy changes that prevent another child from be victimized by someone who is supposed to protect them.

Many people that haven’t experienced a sexual assault don’t understand that survivors feel a myriad of emotions. Shame, fear of retaliation or guilt for the pain it might bring to the family of the abuser. They also might feel responsible for allowing it to happen. It can take years to reconcile those feelings.

Bottom line, there is nothing you can say or do that justifies an adult putting his hands on a child. We should encourage survivors to come forward, and that when they do, they’ll be believed.

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Orting mayor speaks out about his own story of abuse amid ongoing controversy