The students, parents and staff at John Bapst Memorial High School have endured a difficult week as they have started to come to grips with news that a well-regarded teacher committed suicide in a Bangor hotel room after police started investigating allegations that he solicited nude photos from a student.
There are understandable expressions of surprise any time a popular, trusted community figure turns out to have a dark secret. And in the situation involving Jeremiah Gorman, a social science teacher at the 500-student private school, his students this week were caught in the awkward situation of grieving the loss of a beloved teacher and coming to grips with his criminal secrets.
The open and understanding tone set by the school’s leaders sent the message that students would be supported as they wrapped their minds around something so troubling — and expressed their emotions or hid them. It helped to convey to students that, even in the wake of such betrayal, it’s OK to trust.
On Monday and Tuesday, Head of School Mel MacKay shared frank and fitting words with students to help them begin processing a combination of feelings: shock, grief, anger, devastation, betrayal and a general loss of trust. MacKay didn’t hold back any part of the complicated reality. He recognized both the grief over the loss of a beloved teacher and the reality of his actions during a Monday morning school assembly, and he encouraged students to “make sure that no one who has been victimized feels that it is wrong to come forward.”
“The job of a teacher includes a moral obligation to young people,” he said Monday morning, according to remarks he also shared with parents. “You may be asking yourself how a teacher you thought you knew, someone you respected and cared about, could be involved in criminal activity.
“I can only answer for myself. I’ve known people who have done a lot of good and who have also really surprised me with behavior I never expected,” he said.
“It’s tempting at a time like this to make big pronouncements about what’s true. Instead, speak sincerely and speak for yourself, letting others speak for themselves,” MacKay added.
The next day, MacKay precisely stated Gorman’s grievous transgression.
“Mr. Gorman betrayed the professional trust of every colleague of his in this room,” he said in remarks he again shared with parents.
“He betrayed the trust students had in him, and he must have known this,” he said.
How can a popular teacher who built up trust with his students and in the broader community have such dark secrets and abuse that trust to criminal ends? One can explore the psychology of someone prone to sexually abuse children, but the answers would be far from satisfying for Gorman’s students. They decided to trust someone who later betrayed them in a big way. There’s no textbook example of a teacher’s betrayal of his students.
How can his students come to trust again?
As MacKay pointed out in his remarks, it will take time for students to grieve and to process a seemingly intolerable reality. It will take time, and it won’t be easy by any means. But a productive end for the healing process will be the ability to trust again.
Leaders at John Bapst helped students take an important first step toward that end this week by crafting an atmosphere that was open and understanding, an atmosphere that validated students’ wide variety of reactions to a traumatic event, whatever they were.