November 3, 1992, senior year of high school in an upscale suburban community east of Seattle. I’m class president, writing for the school paper, plenty of friends, life is good.
It’s election day; we’ll find out later that night that the former Democratic Governor of Arkansas, a guy they’re calling “Slick Willy”, will assume the presidency after beating contenders George H.W. Bush and H. Ross Perot in a landslide victory.
Election day back in the 90’s, in the state of Washington at least, meant showing up at a public facility to cast your vote — usually a school, library or community center. In this case, our high school, as it had in years prior, served as the defacto polling center for registered voters from our community to drop in and mark their ballots.
Voters would show up at the front of the school, check in at a desk manned by volunteers, then enter an assigned private booth — pretty much the way they still do it in states that haven’t yet adopted a mandatory mail-in voting program. The process would take ten to fifteen minutes max, depending on the crowd, and people would come and go from the school throughout the day. As students, we thought nothing of it at the time — just business as usual.
On my way to my third period history class that morning, I stopped, as I often did, in the bathroom in the three hundred hall — the farthest of three “halls” (long, narrow corridors with classrooms on each side) from the front of the school. As I’d done countless times before, I approached one of the two urinals attached to the wall next to a stall, and proceeded to do my business.
I heard rustling in the stall next to me: another student completing their business, like me, on their way to class, going as quickly as they could so as to not be late for third period. I heard the toilet flush and the stall door open, and out of the corner of my eye, saw the body of a person emerge and move behind me, probably on their way to wash their hands. Only, they weren’t.
The figure approached me from behind and before I could even make sense of what was transpiring, a pair of grimy hands appeared next to mine, attempting to grab a hold of something not meant for their taking. In other words, the mystery patron decided it would be a good idea to try and molest me on his way out of the bathroom.
I snapped into action, pushed his hands away and sort of shifted my body towards his. I turned around to take a look at the individual and caught a glimpse of his profile — he had a beard, definitely not a student, more likely a staff member. In fact, he looked just like one of my teachers, and in that moment, for a split second, I was actually convinced that it was him.
The perpetrator quickly fled the scene, but not before stopping at my backpack, which I’d laid on the ground a few feet away from me, and kicking it, sending it sliding across the bathroom floor for no apparent reason, then turning the corner and running out. Shocked, I tried to make sense of what had just happened, when another student, much younger than me, likely a freshman, entered the bathroom a moment later. “Did you see a guy running down the hall?” I asked him.
“Yes, I did,” he replied, clearly aware that something unusual had transpired based on my tone and the glazed look in my eye.
“He just tried to grab my dick,” I said, startling him. Unsure of what to do next, I picked up my backpack, left the bathroom and carried on down the hall towards third period, slowly playing back the event in my mind as I moved closer to my classroom.
I knew it was election day, everyone knew, but at the time, I drew no parallel between the perpetration and that detail. I was still convinced the man who’d accosted me was one of my teachers, which only added to my level of anxiety, shock and outrage.
“Some guy just tried to grab me in the bathroom,” I announced to my third period class, by now fully in session. My peers collectively dropped their jaws. “Are you serious?” asked one of them.
“Yes, no joke,” I replied. I was no stranger to pranks (including being one of the ringleaders of a library scam where we’d stash a book in an unsuspecting student’s backpack, triggering the alarm on their way out), but to make this kind of thing up would have been beyond the pale, even for me.
My history teacher, an older man named Mr. O’Leary who walked with a hunch, chain-smoked in the on campus smoking section side-by-side with students, and made us listen to Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hits on report, stepped towards me. “Go to the principals office and report it!” he commanded, and I did as he said.
The principal wasted no time contacting our community police, who arrived quickly and took me in one of their patrol cars “downtown” (a non-descript, one-story building about a mile away). Once inside the station, they opened up a book of mugshots and asked me if I could recognize any of the faces. One of the men in the book looked just like my history teacher, and even though I hadn’t looked at the perpetrator straight-on, I could be pretty sure from the mugshot that it was the same man that had approached me in the bathroom at school. “I think that’s him,” I said, and within a few minutes, I was out the door of the station and on my way back to school.
I don’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure I spoke with my parents and they asked me if I wanted to come home for the rest of the day, but this was my senior year, there were girls I wanted to see and I wasn’t about to let my little incident ruin an otherwise good day. By the time I arrived back on campus, news of the bathroom encounter had already spread like wildfire and everyone was talking about it, but nobody except for the kids in my third period class knew that I was on the receiving end of the attack.
A week or two later, the ambitious editors of the school paper were engaged in a lively debate about whether or not the incident in the bathroom should be front page news. “We don’t want to upset the kid that it happened to,” one of them said. I turned to them.
“Don’t worry about,” I offered. “It’s me. I’m the guy it happened to.” Their eyes light up, and the questions came at me rapid fire — are you okay? Is there anything we can do? Would you be willing to go “on the record” about it?
“Sure, whatever you guys want,” I told them. I don’t recall if they decided to use my name or not in the article(s), but the incident did spark a conversation about the dangers of public polling on school property, in the presence of minors, because, when you think about it, it’s pretty negligent to let adults not affiliated with a school freely roam the campus the way they used to on election day. This was a worse-case scenario, as it turned out the guy who attacked me was a registered sex offender, but no less entitled to cast his vote with the rest of the community on election day.
I heard nothing from the police after that day — no request to appear at a line up, to testify, to give an official statement, and the event sort of faded into the past as things tend to do. It wasn’t until a year later when I was back home on a break from college, that my parents would show me a letter they had received from the District Attorney of King County, informing us that David Harto, a convicted sex offender registered to an address in our community, had been indicted on multiple counts of child molestation, after being caught assaulting a boy much younger than me in a public park about a year after my encounter with him.
And that was that.
Of course, Washington state did reform our voting policies, and in 2011, with 38 of 39 counties offering VBM (vote by mail), the state Legislature passed a law requiring VBM across the state.
In 2013, some states, in response to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newton, CT on December 14 of the prior year, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people, including 20 children between six and seven years old, and six adult staff members, began moving polls out of school as a safety measure. That trend has continued to this day; in 2017, Texas began requiring each school district to create a security policy for school buildings selected as polling places.
I’m now 45 years old and live a comfortable life with my wife and three children in the same community where I went to high school. I hadn’t given the events of that day in 1992 much thought other than the occasional “remember when that happened?” conversation with friends and family when I saw my phone light up a couple of months ago with a number I didn’t recognize. I answered the call and was surprised to hear the voice on the other end — a prosecutor with the State of Washington.
He told me that David Harto, the man who had been convicted of attacking me, and others, was coming up on parole, and having done his time, was likely to be released back into the civilian population. But the prosecutor, and the members of his team, don’t want to let that happen, fully believing that Mr. Harto would be likely to re-offend based on his track record and prior convictions. So, they wanted to know if I’d be willing to testify about my experience with him, to help them build their case against his release.
Apparently, unbeknownst to me, Washington State enforces a Community Custody program for high-risk offenders, providing those deemed eligible for the program by a judge supervised living in housing controlled by the state. The prosecutor explained to me that he believed that Mr. Harto would be an ideal candidate for such a program, and based on what I know about him, agree, so I offered to cooperate with him and his team, and at this time am awaiting work on a potential court appearance (in-person or virtual) during which time I’ll give my testimony.
The title of this piece may be a bid misleading — I don’t really consider myself a victim of sexual assault, when compared with the heinous crimes so many others are subjected to. “Accosted” is the word my friends and family always throw around to describe what happened to me. But I would like to have my day in court, to perhaps see Mr. Harto in person, who I know is a very sick individual, a diseased man who simply can’t function in society like the rest of us, and needs the help that programs funded by our tax dollars can offer him, lest he be released back into the community to inflict more pain and suffering on others.
In terms of PTSD, I’d say I’m doing okay. But I remain suspicious of public bathrooms, and always will, so if I see you coming any where near me in one, don’t be surprised when I turn around and assume a Bruce Lee position on you.