Re-framing the Rockville Rape Case

Julia Byrne, University of Maryland Baltimore County:

In Montgomery County, Maryland, a fourteen-year-old Rockville High School student was violently assaulted in the school bathroom by two older male students on March 16. The two boys, who raped the freshman, happened to be undocumented immigrants. Both local and national news outlets have covered the story extensively since it became public, but the laser focus has been on the supposed danger that immigrants pose to American citizens, rather than the more pressing issue of pervasive American rape culture.

Fox News has pointed to this case as proof of the media’s liberal bias, claiming that the incident is being ignored because the rapists were undocumented, and it would be ‘politically incorrect’ to report on the case. Not only are their allegations false—the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun have both reported on the case, as have dozens of local papers—but this is the network that gave shelter to sexual predator Roger Ailes for decades and celebrated the election of self-professed ‘pussy-grabber’ Donald Trump. The network’s hostility towards women and is reminiscent of the 1950s. When Gretchen Carlson first made allegations of sexual harassment against Ailes, many of Fox News’s personalities defended him, suggesting that Carlson had invented the years of harassment and abuse she faced. Ailes isn’t the only man from Fox with a record, either. Bill O’Reilly has also preyed on young women seeking to advance their careers. Casual sexism is imbued deeply into the show’s premise—female breadwinners are viewed as threats to the American establishment, women who are sexually harassed are viewed as ‘asking for it,’ and male anchors often make lascivious comments about their female co-workers.

It’s clear, then, that concern for women isn’t what motivated the media giant’s intense coverage of the Rockville case. However, Ed Martin, a guest on “America’s Newsroom,” dropped a clue about the real reason behind the case’s extensive coverage when he declared that “they’re raping and killing our people.” Yes, the almighty “They,” an othering tactic as old as Nixon, now called into action against undocumented immigrants. And it has once again worked its magic. Resentment has run rampant in Rockville over the past few weeks. People have threatened to murder undocumented students and burn down the school. Rallies have been held protesting the presence of illegal immigrants in Montgomery County. Republican state delegate Kathy Szeliga has encouraged her constituents to speak out against Maryland becoming a sanctuary state, citing the Rockville case as the reason. There have even been reports of the KKK leaving flyers in parking lots.

It is foolish to pretend that this rage stems primarily from a desire for safety in schools. Rather, this tragic event has been co-opted by groups like the nativist “Help Save Maryland,” who argue that this incident is proof that immigrants are violent criminals who seek to destroy the fabric of society. They have further argued that Maryland will be in danger as long as it continues to grant undocumented immigrants amnesty. Attorney General Jefferson Sessions and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer have also cited the incident as justification for the new administration’s aggressive actions on immigration.

However, this inflammatory rhetoric has been short on facts. The sanctuary counties that are condemned as Mos-Eisley style crime hives actually have almost forty percent fewer crimes than their non-sanctuary counterparts. In addition, median household income is about four thousand dollars higher, the poverty rate is two point three percent lower. Montgomery County, in particular, greatly benefits from its immigrant population–over a third of the county population is from somewhere other than the United States and about half of that group is not naturalized. Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes like rape and murder than native-born citizens. There is no evidence of an epidemic of violence from undocumented immigrants. What happened in Rockville was a tragedy, and the causes need to be addressed by Maryland’s government. However, illegal immigration isn’t one of these causes.

The framing of this issue as an immigration problem means that there has been little discussion of the reasons why sexual assault happens.  Sexual assault is a serious problem facing the Old Line State. According to the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, women living in Maryland have the 6th highest lifetime prevalence of rape, physical violence, and stalking. Twenty point five percent of Maryland women have experienced rape. The American Association of University Women’s 2010 Hostile Hallways report revealed that over seventy percent of students have been victims of sexual harassment at school—harassment encompassing things like forced physical action, making sexually charged comments, spreading rumors, and spying on other students as they dressed.

Rockville High School principal Billie-Jean Benson has promised to tighten school security. However, there has been little talk of addressing the issue of rape culture in high schools–dress codes that tell girls that their bodies are dangerous and “distracting,” the hypermasculine culture among teenage boys that encourages them to not take “no” for an answer, and the lack of proper consent training. While Montgomery County is known as a very progressive area, the response to this incident has revealed that the school system needs to continue to work towards improving conditions for students. Programs like bystander training and a system where students could report sexual harassment would be a good way to start.

It is crucial in the coming days and weeks that the people of Montgomery County focus on addressing the real reasons behind the tragedy at Rockville. Turning to xenophobia only promises to divide one of the country’s most diverse and successful counties and will do nothing to fix the causes behind sexual assault. It is human nature to want to blame someone in times of tragedy, but utilizing fear as a reason to further endanger an already vulnerable population is decidedly un-American. Montgomery County is better than that.

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