Frosh lawmaker Passidomo getting national attention over 'gang rape victim' remark

State Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples

State Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples

— She said she simply wants to protect young girls from predators.

So Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said she was “really hurt” this week when she was accused in the blogosphere of blaming the gang rape of an 11-year-old Texas girl not on the 18 alleged attackers, but on the girl.

“The blame is solely on the boys for what occurred,” Passidomo said of the alleged attackers. “Those kids were going to find somebody. They’re predators. They’re going to be dealt with through the judicial system. But the young girl has to deal with this for the rest of her life. My whole comment was, how do we protect these kids from predators?

“One of the ways is to teach them how to dress appropriately.”

The brouhaha originated Tuesday during a meeting of the House K-20 education innovation subcommittee, of which Passidomo is a member. The members were discussing a bill dealing with a code of student conduct in Florida schools.

The bill – dubbed the “sagging pants” bill – would require school districts to adopt a dress code policy that forbids students from wearing clothing that “exposes underwear or body parts in an indecent or vulgar manner.”

During the discussion, Passidomo, a freshman lawmaker, said she was reminded of an article in the March 8, edition of the New York Times. The article was about an 11-year-old Texas girl who was allegedly gang-raped by 18 male attackers, ranging in age from middle schoolers to a 27-year-old.

Neighbors told the Times the girl dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and clothing more appropriate for someone in her 20s. Others questioned where the girl’s mother was.

The alleged assault started after a 19-year-old boy invited the 11-year-old to ride around in his car, according to the Times. Instead, he took her to a house, and later to an abandoned mobile home, where reports say he and the other attackers sexually assaulted her.

Passidomo discussed the story during Tuesday’s committee meeting, which The St. Petersburg Times reported about on its Florida politics blog, The Buzz.

“There was an article about an 11-year-old girl who was gang-raped in Texas by 18 young men because she was dressed like a 21-year-old prostitute,” Passidomo said during the meeting, according to the St. Petersburg Times. “And her parents let her attend school like that. And I think it’s incumbent upon us to create some areas where students can be safe in school and show up in proper attire so what happened in Texas doesn’t happen to our students.”

That comment was picked up by blogs around the country, including the Huffington Post, many of which accused Passidomo of blaming the victim.

When asked about the quote, Passidomo said “I don’t think that’s exactly what I said, but I don’t know.”

“The point that is disturbing to me or distressing to me is that anyone would think anyone would blame an 11-year-old for this horrible assault,” Passidomo said.

Passidomo, who has three adult daughters of her own, said she was devastated after reading the New York Times article about the attack. If the girl’s school had a stricter code of dress and student conduct, the girl might have had some extra protection, she said.

“Nobody was protecting her, and I’m thinking ‘My God, if the family can’t, then who else is going to?’” Passidomo said. “It’s going to be up to the school.”

No matter how well intentioned, looking at a victim’s clothing to find a solution to preventing rape merely perpetuates the stereotypes that allow violence to exist, said Linda Oberhaus, executive director of The Shelter for Abused Women & Children.

“Instead of focusing on the victim, which automatically infers some level of guilt upon her, we should be looking at the perpetrators and hold them accountable,” Oberhaus said. “We need to continue working to change the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that allow such violence to exist, not change our outfits.”

Passidomo said she’s received “a few” e-mails about her comments, and she’s responded to every one. Most, she said, have written back to apologize.

She said she’s lost some sleep over the issue, but is ready to move on.

However, this is not the first time Passidomo has made waves since taking office. A bill she filed that would require people receiving unemployment benefits to perform volunteer work also received national attention.

"The remark she made is a disgrace" said Timothy Stiles, 64, from Metuchen, N.J. who learned of the story through national websites. "The remarks she made are offensive. You don't blame the victim. I don't believe this woman should be in office."

Stiles said he called Passidomo's office in both Naples and Tallahassee to lodge a complaint about the remarks.

Passidomo is typically candid and willing to talk. The biggest downside of the unintended attention, she said, is it “makes one want to hold back and just sit there.”

“As people are saying, welcome to public service, because these things are going to happen,” she said. “People are going to accuse you of things you had nothing to do with, and you’re just going to have to live with it, and I will.

“But I took it very personally.”

_Connect with Ryan Mills at www.naplesnews.com/staff/ryan-mills/

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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