An elected official was called an “idiot” by the chairwoman of Charleston County Schools after a Facebook post that appeared to question whether a Berkeley County student at the center of a sexual assault case was really a victim.
Joseph Bowers III, a Charleston County District 1 Constituent School Board member, on Wednesday posted on his Facebook page about the arrest of Goose Creek High School Assistant Principal Paul Jette Herman in connection with the alleged sexual assault of a 16-year-old student.
In the post, the 23-year-old Bowers said, “This will be an interesting case to follow since the ‘victim’ is the age of consent. I have a gut feeling there is much more to this than meets the eye.”
In Charleston County there are eight constituent boards, which govern student discipline, attendance zones and student transfers for specific geographic areas of the county. District 1 includes McClellanville. The countywide board handles education policy and budgetary matters.
The post immediately caught the attention of Charleston County School Board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats, who emailed Bowers Wednesday morning from her personal account with the subject line of “you are an idiot,” and asking him to take down the post.
“Remove that post from your Facebook page or I will loud you out as completely inept to serve the students of (the Charleston County School District),” Coats wrote in the email. “Is this how’d you react if it had occurred at Lincoln (Middle-High School)?”
Coats was responding first as a private citizen and a stepmom who was offended by his comments. Then she reminded Bowers of the state law under which Herman had been charged that makes it illegal for someone affiliated with a school to have a sexual relationship with a student, even if the relationship is consensual.
Bowers, in an email to Coats Thursday, said “I am deeply concerned with the issue from all sides. I feel that my post was neutral enough to convey that.” He also wrote that “if the accused is found guilty he should be punished,” but then farther down wrote that “if the student ... contributed in any way of her own will I feel she should be punished in some way too.”
“That is why I put ‘victim’ because the accused is not being charged with coercing her,” Bowers wrote. “Students need to know it is not OK!”
Herman, 36, of Cicadas Song Drive in Moncks Corner, was arrested Tuesday on one count of sexual battery with a student, without aggravated force or coercion — a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. He was released from jail Wednesday on a personal recognizance bond of $100,000. In South Carolina, the legal age of consent is 16, but it is illegal for school officials to have a sexual relationship with students.
Bowers said in a phone interview that his comments were taken “out of context,” and that he was not “condoning what was done.” What he said he was trying to get at was that there are “double standards” in the law.
“It is an interesting case, because had this not been at a school setting, he really wouldn’t be charged with anything,” Bowers said. “I think it shows some gaps in our state laws that need to be fixed.”
The fix, Bowers said, is to raise the age of consent.
But the Goose Creek assistant principal’s arrest, Coats said in an interview “is not our business.”
“Students are our number one concern,” Coats said. “I think we should be very understanding of the tough time (the Berkeley County School District) is going through right now. We should be very understanding that there are laws against this and we shouldn’t be involved in this conversation.”
Berkeley County School Board Chairman Kent Murray did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Carolyn Alston, president of the Lincoln Middle-High School PTSA, which is in Bowers’ district, said she didn’t think Bowers’ comments were right, calling a sexual relationship between a student and school administrator “molestation.”
“It’s not appropriate,” Alston said of Bowers’ comments. “We expect (school officials) to be like parents.”
Rebecca Williams-Agee, director of prevention and education with the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said sometimes people make comments regarding sexual assault based on generalizations of sexual assault.
“I think that folks often have an idea that an actual sexual assault victim is brutalized or is attacked by someone,” Williams-Agee said. “When the person doesn’t fit that description, we often as a society turn to victim blaming and that’s what this comment is.”
Regardless of the age of consent, Williams-Agee said from an advocacy standpoint when there is a “power dynamic or fear dynamic consent cannot be given and therefore it’s not a consensual act.”
“That’s why laws like (sexual battery with a student) exist” she said, “to address the power dynamic.”
It’s unclear whether Bowers’ Facebook post violates the school board’s code of ethics. The code does not specifically address board conduct on social media, but it does require board members to “commit themselves...to ethical, civil, business like and lawful conduct.”
Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or on Twitter at @PCAmandaKerr.