A week later, a Cleburne County High junior started selling T-shirts from the page, declaring the wearer one of “Ward’s Warriors.” She sold 47 T-shirts, enough to raise $150 for Ward’s family, the teen said.
The teen started selling the T-shirts to let the family know that some people in the community support Ward, she said.
“I made sure before I did anything that they were OK with that,” said Hayleigh Braden, who was coached by Ward.
She had her parents’ blessings, too.
Her mother, Susan Braden, said the Ward family are her friends. Ward’s family has taken over paying his bills and while the T-shirt sale raised just a small amount of money, she thought it might help them, she said.
But the very public support of someone accused of a sex crime can be detrimental to the victims of such a crime and to the investigation, say local officials.
Public expressions of support for Ward have hindered the investigation, said Heflin police Chief A.J. Benefield. It keeps other alleged victims from coming forward, he said, and he doesn’t understand it.
“It intimidates your victims,” Benefield said. “It’s a travesty to the victim in the judicial system.”
Jennifer Bivins, president and chief executive officer of the Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault, said it happens all too often.
“Either the victim is blamed or we don’t make a big deal about it,” Bivins said.
Either way, Bivins said, support for the accused can hinder the victims’ recovery, she said. The more support the accused has around him, the harder it is for victims to receive the support they need to heal, Bivins said.
Trace Fleming-Smith, a victim’s advocate at 2nd Chance, which serves victims of domestic and sexual violence, said it’s a prime example of rape culture, and shows how much work still needs to be done to educate the public about rape.
“They don’t believe that there was a crime,” Fleming-Smith said. “There’s a complete lack of understanding of that law that says that a teacher cannot have sex with a student.”
Teachers are authority figures over students, she said. It’s not only against the law to take advantage of that position, it’s unethical, Fleming-Smith said. Under the law, Chief Benefield said, students cannot consent to sex with a teacher. It’s too easy for a teacher to influence the students, he said.
In many cases, people who support those accused of sex crimes don’t want to believe the accused could be responsible for such an act, said Laura Palumbo, prevention campaign specialist for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
“We have a very specific idea of who the monsters are in society,” Palumbo said. “People think they would recognize a sexual predator.”
But that perception just doesn’t hold up in reality. The majority of victims know their abusers, she said. According to a report released by the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center examining rapes in Alabama from 1999 to 2003, only 10 percent of victims didn’t know their attacker.
Fleming-Smith said perpetrators of sex crimes are able to commit the crimes because they’re generally likeable and can gain the trust of victims and victims’ families.
The Bradens said they understand that Ward confessed to having sex with the students. Hayleigh’s father, Larry Braden, said he went to a hearing on a motion to reduce Ward’s $200,000 cash bond and saw Ward’s taped statement to police in which he admitted having sex with two of his students. He remains in the Cleburne County Jail. No trial date has been set.
“We agree that he had some bad judgment,” said Susan Braden.
But, Larry Braden said, he believes the case is a “witch hunt.”
Benefield said he understands Ward hasn’t been convicted of the charges. But, he added, victims have rights, too — the right not to be intimidated at school or work because they have reported a crime.
It’s unfortunate, Palumbo said, that such arrests don’t motivate more questioning about how this was able to happen instead of how the accused could have been arrested.
Cleburne County Schools Superintendent Claire Dryden said by email the T-shirts supporting Ward have been banned from the high school.
“The Cleburne County Board of Education has the responsibility to maintain an appropriate atmosphere conducive to learning,” Dryden wrote. “It is our duty to remain neutral in this controversial situation which could create a hostile and or offensive learning environment.”
Hayleigh Braden said she didn’t understand it. Students aren’t even allowed to talk about Ward at school.
“He was everybody’s favorite teacher,” she said. “It’s been hard on a lot of people at school because they miss him.”
Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.