Speaking after Monday's candlelight walk, victims' advocate Marybeth Adkins said her voice began to break that night as she looked into the crowd and saw tears streaming down young girls' faces.
"These girls are our responsibility," Adkins said Wednesday, not the person they have accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault. "People who are in leadership on the (Norton) school board, these students are your responsibility."
She commended Norton School Board for seeking outside investigation of complaints against Jim Adams, the embattled Burton High School head football coach who's been accused of inappropriate behavior toward at least two former students. Four others have reached out to Family Crisis Support Services, the advocacy organization headed by Adkins.
She said they've tried not to focus entirely on the current conflict but more broadly on all victims of sexual abuse, assault and harassment.
"Everyone wants to talk about him. It's not about him. It's about these girls for us," she said.
Adkins estimated more than 100 turned out at Norton City Park while other supporters were scattered all along Park Avenue as the walk continued to the far end of town. Those who didn't walk got out and stood by their cars as the walk passed. "It was just kind of breathtaking," she said.
Another indication of community support came in the numbers of "We Believe You" t-shirts that were sold in advance of the walk — more than $1,200 worth. She noted a great number of boys who came to their shelter to buy shirts in support of the girls.
Adkins said she told those gathered that the walk was for a community in conflict. "In a conflict, we have to remember that the only thing we can control is how we, as individuals and together as a community, choose to react. It is important that we react in a way that is trauma informed."
What that means, she explained, is understanding that each individual responds differently to trauma and reacting in a way that supports healing and reduces re-traumatization.
Adkins said she also told them healing is a journey, not a destination.
"Being a trauma-informed community does not mean we react in anger or protest," Adkins also told them. "That’s all too easy and requires no contemplation of what the victim has been through. We have to be thoughtful in this process. We must work together as a community to mitigate any harmful impact of trauma."
For as heartbreaking as this controversy has been for the community, Adkins said she also has "felt like this community was coming together again."
It would be an inaccurate interpretation, she also stressed, that the agency's support of victims equates to belief that those accused are guilty.
Family Crisis Support Services is "not judge, jury or executioner. That’s not our stand," Adkins continued. "We are a trauma-informed agency providing services to all victims. We strive to help."
People in her line of work can sometimes become hardened to terrible things. Asked what it is about the current conflict that has touched her so deeply, Adkins said part of it has been the response she's gotten from the community "everywhere I go — the grocery store, the gas station, everywhere, people I don't even know." They thank her "for being a voice," she said, noting that her social media post, which criticized the actions of Norton School Board toward two former students who complained publicly, has been shared everywhere.
"This has been hard," Adkins acknowledged. Since her public post, she said she has been asked repeatedly if she was really "ready to take this on."
Adkins said statistics show that people who make false accusations of sexual harassment and assault are lower than 5 percent to 8 percent of the total.
"I am protecting these students," she said, "and I am going to use this as an opportunity to educate this community . . .
We need to stop. We need to listen. We need to be aware of our actions . . . We need to take a trauma-centered approach in working with people who go through a traumatic event."
The reaction so far from the broader community has been "unbelievable" in support, she said.
Asked about guidance to those who "still don't get it" with regard to behavior that once was acceptable but is no longer, Adkins pointed to new grant funding for prevention efforts that began July 1. The agency already is in schools and the added funding will help them spend more time there while also spreading the message throughout the community — to both men and women — of what in today's society is appropriate and what is not.
For example, you can't abuse a leadership position by texting someone at midnight, she said.
But she also admitted, "I'm not sure how we reach . . . the older generation."
The recent allegations are by no means the agency's first encounter with such reports, Adkins said, noting that its aggressive pursuit of funding came well before the controversy involving Adams.
"This whole episode has opened the door for conversations," Adkins said, observing that they are now hearing of mothers who have gone to talk to their daughters.
"I can't tell you how many have come back to me and said they think this behavior is normal," she said.
Adkins noted that Family Crisis conducts weekly support groups in Norton and in Dickenson and Lee counties.
Stepping off on a journey of healing begins with education, she said, followed by allowing the proper authorities to do their jobs.
People who want to choose sides, she said, "are making the decision to be the judge in this and they're not."