Growing up on the outskirts of Delta Junction, I spent countless hours of my childhood riding the school bus. Living at the end of a long, sparsely populated route meant that depending on the day, such as when my older brother and my nearest "neighbors" were staying at school for extracurricular activities, I could be alone on the bus with the driver for between 10 and 30 minutes. What should have been innocuous rides to and from school were marred by my bus driver sexually harassing me when I was 12 years old.
This harassment included demanding that I sit at the front near him when the last of the other children were dropped off, flirting relentlessly with me, and calling me "sexy." He was also harassing other girls when they were left alone with him. I knew because we talked to each other about it. We were all disgusted, frustrated and, most of all, scared.
We had heard a rumor that he had been reported for harassing another girl, but that she was not believed and he kept his job. She stopped riding the bus; we concluded that if we told anyone, we would not be believed. We knew that our options then would be to get a ride from our parents every day, which seemed unlikely given the distance, or risk being left alone with him, knowing that we had told. The risk was petrifying.
Petrifying until, one day, panic prompted me into action. I remember my bus driver's face looking at mine through his rear-view mirror with that familiar twinkle in his eye and him saying, "Good. Now I can take you into the woods." I don't remember what we talked about, I just remember the fear. The fear that even if nothing happened that day, his innuendos and insinuations were increasing in intensity, and that my situation was now precariously unsafe.
Twelve years old. Weighing the risks. Stay quiet and let the situation escalate or report and possibly face retaliation. The day after, I told a friend. She walked me to the school office, where we called her mom. When we got on the bus next, he was gone. I never saw him again.
The choice that I had to make at 12 years old was blindingly terrifying. It was terrifying because, even as a child, I was being fed the story that survivors of sexual violence and those at risk of sexual violence were not believed. They weren't believed, they were abandoned, and staying safe was up to them.
If the risk of reporting is too great, that leaves too many of Alaska's children with the decision to stay quiet until it is too late. Or, in perhaps too many cases: stay quiet forever. My panic pushed me in the direction of seeking help, but not without great fear and trepidation.
What can you do to give children better choices?
Tell the children in your life that you will believe them.
Show them that you will believe them by showing that you believe others who come forward. Please understand that by demonstrating disbelief in others' stories, the implicit message to vulnerable Alaskans is that they won't be believed, either.
Discuss with those around you how we can ensure that reporting is a safe and viable option for all Alaskans at risk.
Lifelong Alaskan Ingrid Johnson's story was collected by nonprofit group 49th Rising, in an effort to move forward the conversation on sexual violence.
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