JG Exclusive: The Nightmare Begins: How the Case Against the Teachers Unfolded
BY :BASTEN GOKKON
SEPTEMBER 27, 2015
The following is part of Jakarta Globe reporter Basten Gokkon’s extensive interview with Neil Bantleman and Ferdinand Tjiong – the Jakarta Intercultural School teachers falsely accused of the sexual abuse of three young students – and their wives, Tracy and Sisca, in their first direct comments to the media since their conviction was overturned by the Jakarta High Court on Aug. 14. Read more of this exclusive interview here.
Neil Bantleman and Ferdinand Tjiong were named suspects by police in June 2014 for the alleged sexual abuse of three young boys at the Jakarta Intercultural School, where both men taught. The accusation built on identical claims by the mother of one of the boys that a group of janitors had repeatedly raped her son. For lifelong educators Neil and Ferdi, and their wives Tracy and Sisca, the accusations were a disaster that they continue to grapple with, even after their exoneration.
Q: Could you describe how it all happened from the beginning?
Neil: The whole thing started in April with the first mother contacting the school saying that she believed that her son had been sodomized, likely at the school. This was just after like a spring break, so nobody was really around, except the head of school [Tim Carr] and administrators who were dealing with that situation directly with the first family. Then the week passed and everybody returned to school. First day we returned to school, because I was an administrator at the Pondok Indah campus, and in a meeting we were told about what is alleged to have happened. It’s the worst news you could hear as a teacher, to believe that something like that happened on your campus, and being an administrator you’re responsible for the safety of everybody. So as administrators we feel like we have failed our job, but still wondering about how such a thing could happen on a campus like ours, how is this possible. But we didn’t question the allegations, because why would somebody say something if it’s not true? So teachers and administrators worked endlessly and tirelessly to do everything we could do to ensure that we assisted the first family and made sure that the child was protected, the family got everything they needed to support them and the rest of the school got the support that they needed too. So we brought in additional counselors, offered any assistance to any family that had questions or concerns.
Then in June, the night before the last day of school, we were exhausted but happy as a school that we just had gotten through the school year with the thought that the problem had been resolved. We were responsible and cooperative with the police, and we’d done everything that we could to support the community. We were just happy that the school year had finished and that we could put it behind us and then we started to heal and think about what’s going to happen in the next school year, make sure that we’ve moved on as a community.
And then news came. I remember sitting together [with Tracy] on our couch talking about our plans because the next week we were going home because my dad had just started his cancer treatments so we were going to support my mom and dad throughout that process. And I get a phone call from Tim Carr, the head of school, and to see his name and knowing that it’s eight o’clock at night – they’re never calling for good reasons, you know. I took the call but got bad reception so I went outside.
Then he said he had terrible news: that I’d been named as a potential perpetrator of abuse against kids at school. I was like, ‘How is that possible?’ We’re working so close with this case up until that point in time. Things started to emerge and details started to come up. But we got the news and I was like, ‘Oh, this is another step to craziness,’ but you feel numb, because it’s the worst thing that you could be accused of I think as a teacher, as a human.
This is what you do, your job, this is what I’ve done for 20 years – teach people to be compassionate, responsible, productive members of the society and we teach parents and kids to avoid this from happening to you, to have a positive experience for them, to love school, love learning. And then to be accused of the very thing that you protect everybody against, it was like your whole world collapses in front of your face. I remember then after taking the phone call, [I thought] I have to go back inside and I have to tell Tracy ... that I was just accused of abusing kids. I’ve never heard such a gutter roll reaction from Tracy before, in our entire relationship, a complete horror…
Tracy: I was shocked. As soon as he told me, I immediately knew that it was false and so my next thought and the first thing that came out of my mouth was ‘How could someone be so inhumane as to make baseless allegations like this?’ I was shocked, sick to my stomach. Like Neil said, it feels like the world just falls all over you, or like you’ve been hit by a train and you’re not even anywhere near the train tracks.
Neil: So unexpected, yeah. And I know I didn’t do it, I know Ferdi didn’t do it. And that’s all I can control, but there’s millions of people out there and everybody has their own opinions – I can’t stop that. I know that my friends, colleagues and the kids at school know I didn’t do it. I guess that’s the most important thing, but it’s certainly difficult to live your life knowing that, somebody could’ve walked in here and said ‘Oh, there they are.’ I don’t know what people are thinking. As much as I can control that and I just live with knowing that I know the truth, that’s the most important thing. But it’s difficult because maybe everybody is judging you and to me that’s not fair because it’s based on somebody’s really careless accusations only. Three people make those accusations, but then the rest of the world can form their opinions based on those false accusations and it’s a very difficult to live with that.
Ferdi: When I first heard about the news, I didn’t know who did it, who the victim was. Basically, the school only informed us that there had been an incident at the school and as the school’s employees, we were just to follow the school’s program, which was to protect the kids, but not told which kid. And on April 28, I came to the campus at half past six and then sat with my colleagues at the back area of the school restricted to employees only. And then one of the learning leaders came up to me and asked me to join him at the head of school’s office. The head of school was there with the learning leader and they told me that one of the students’ parents had accused me of assault. I was really shocked and asked for details but failed to get the information. And then they told me to take some days off starting that day to rest, according to the procedures, but also asked to stay quiet regarding the news to prevent speculation. At 7:15 a.m. the conversation was finished and I immediately went to the school’s transport office to take me home, but then asked the driver to stop nearby my housing complex and went to a small shop to think about what happened and how to best tell my wife. I stayed there until around 9 a.m. before going back home. Because I wasn’t ready, I told my wife that I came home because I wasn’t feeling well. The rest of that day I kept on thinking of the best way to tell my wife about the allegations. And so the next morning I was planning to tell her because she would wonder why I didn’t go to work that day, but apparently she already heard something from a colleague to check in on me. And then I eventually told my wife about it, and she didn’t believe it at all. Several days later, some of the school’s staff came over to interview me. And then I was summoned to come to the school and sat down with Neil and Tracy to talk about the case.
Neil: So that’s what we were dealing with, that the second mother said Ferdi abused her child, plus the security guard, so they’re bringing this to the school. It was like a tailspin. At first, we were questioning about the cleaners – how is that possible for that even to happen – and then we get this accusation about Ferdi. I’m working with my colleague here trying to make this teacher assistant program, having people like Ferdi in mind to develop their skills, continue to improve and develop and teach classes, and this is our goal to improve the quality of the school and the work experience of everybody, expats and the Indonesians. That’s what our focus was at. And then this accusations come and now we’re questioning if we can even do the program now that there’s an accusation against a teaching assistant and then there’s a security guard that’s been accused. And then these parents don’t want anyone from the ISS who’s ever worked in the school to work at the school anymore. People who are completely innocent and have worked there for 20 years, what can we say as a school? Say ‘OK?’ No, we can’t say that. We’re talking about the people they’ve affected. So many people out there you don’t even know about, but they’ve been supportive of us. They’ve suffered more than we have, and what’s the craziness of what has happened? A continual elevation of allegations that just became more unrealistic.
Tracy: Not to mention that the second mother who made the allegations against Ferdi and the security guard, she was always there at the school volunteering. I worked at the kindergarten taught all of these boys and she was always there volunteering. How would a mother not know? C’mon, it’s crazy.
Neil: She’s filed a police report, she’s filed against Ferdi and I, but what about the security guard? The story changes again.
Why do you think the accusers singled out the two of you? Did you know them prior to this?
Ferdi: I’m still not able to wrap my head around as to why they picked me and him. I’m a teaching assistant for the first grade, but the kid [alleged to have been abused] is in kindergarden. I don’t know the the parent or her child. Even the first time I saw the child was during the first court hearing via a teleconference. Students from kindergarden to senior high pass by, but I don’t know each one of them. I’ve got 20 students in my class and I’m already busy, I can’t handle students from other class. And even if I did, I would be violating the school’s regulation. If they say I went to the kindergarten, I never go there and you can check with the teachers and teaching assistants.
Neil: No. The year before I was an administrator, I was the P.E. teacher and we teach kindergarten to grade five. But we split classes, and so I knew most of the kids from my classes. I knew students from the other classes, because we would teach team together. But those three kids were in the early-years program, before kindergarten. I never taught those kids, never saw them either. Like Ferdi said, it’s a big school where classes are walking around. Maybe we pass by, you say hello to the class teacher and the kids said hello to you, but you don’t know all 600 kids. And when I became an administrator I was doing a lot of presentations at the assembly before 600 kids, so the kids know you from there. So perhaps they can recognize me from there. But the first time I ever saw those kids in person, or by television conference, and even the parents, was at the court. I don’t know how they came up with our names, but I’m not quite sure that it was the kids that came up with our names. You have to ask those parents. But there was the school’s yearbook, and from the court testimony it was the parents that were opening it up and saying ‘We have pictures of all the divisions, and also all of the cleaners; which one of these hurt you?’ To a 6-year-old kid, that question is so loaded. ‘So is it this one, or this one?’ Like Tracy said a while ago, this one kid points at a picture and ruins somebody’s life, so clearly for Azwar [an ISS janitor who died under mysterious circumstances in police custody] and his family. To think that those accusations have caused the death of somebody, that’s the biggest tragedy of all.
How did you feel when the police named you suspects? How did your families respond?
Neil: It felt like a continuation of an ever-growing snowball of confusion, chaos and disbelief in every stage. First the phone call saying somebody’s accused you. OK, I get that and it’s going to be cleared up, the police will do some sort of an investigation, ask some questions and we’re fine because nothing happened. But then the police want to ask you as a witness. OK, we go there. There were questions for us that didn’t sound like a question you’d ask to a witness, it sounds more like a question you’d ask to a suspect. And I went back again and the questions became more specific as to did you do the alleged sodomy or assault. Almost like you’re waiting in disbelief but you know it’s going to happen because it’s continually going down the hill. And then we were named suspects, and we went for an interview with the police one day for a very long time, like eight to10 hours, it was already midnight by the time we’d finished. And then the police wanted to keep us overnight and so they’d promised the school and the embassies that they would keep us overnight, give as a place to sleep and then continue the interview in the morning.
And then once our [embassy representatives] left and our lawyers left, all of a sudden they started writing up the paper for the 20-day detention; they were like, ‘We have enough evidence to detain you for 20 days’ – after five minutes [ago] telling our embassies and lawyers that we’d be fine tomorrow morning, most likely just do a little more interview and go home. How did you get enough evidence in the last five minutes? So these were the little indicators, there are bigger indicators, that things were just not going in the direction of reality or the truth.
Ferdi: People were shocked, but they never created distance. My longtime friends, the JIS community, my neighbors and friends from church fully supported me. But what made me upset is how people who didn’t know me find out from the media who, back then, weren’t able to provide balanced news. Some were mean and leading people’s opinion into one direction, and that could harm innocent people like me, and even my kids. And when I was found innocent later on, they simply revised the news. But they’ve caused a long-term impact for me and my family from the previous news.