Ann Marie Bradstreet, paddling in the shallows of investigative journalism casts light on a shadow of male vulnerability, as a school dad is labelled ‘suspicious’.

A friend was parked outside our local primary school recently waiting to pick up his kids as he does every school day. He arrived at his regular bay nice and early, unlike me who generally shows up after the bell, ducking and weaving corridors against the exiting tide, jostled by excited emancipated kids and harried parents stuffing errant objects into forgotten school bags, as I claw my way to my son’s classroom and his teacher’s inevitable disapproval. This dad, however, is a good time-keeper, it’s a noble trait.

On this particular afternoon as the punctual parent population idled up the footpath for school pick up, past my friend’s car, he caught sight of a police officer in his rear view mirror. Shortly after, his driver’s side window was tapped and he found his car surrounded by three more officers.

After being prompted for identification and asked to justify his presence he questioned, in understandable panic, what was going on? He was told a member of the public had alerted them to a suspicious person outside a primary school and his number plate had been given. The suspicious person was him!

After a relatively reasonable yet humiliating exchange the matter was resolved and he left to collect his sons, albeit shaken and confused.

When he told me this story he was emphatic for anyone who may have seen or heard about the incident to be aware of his innocence. My response was to laugh, heartily; I even cackled until I saw his face sink and mutter indecipherable disappointment. It didn’t take long, thankfully (empathy intact: check!), to realise he was devastated.

A member of the public had alerted them to a suspicious person outside a primary school and his number plate had been given, the suspicious person was him!

I’d laughed because it was him! Let’s call him – Rhett. It was ridiculous to me that he’d been considered suspicious. His wife works long hours and even though he balks at the “Stay at Home Dad” tag because he has a job and is half-hearted with housework (I keep good company on that point), he does a large portion of the child care. He’s at school in that park – on time, every day, except weekends – that would be weird.

I’m angling toward an argument of comparison, bear with me. Rhett’s duties mirror mine, he makes the lunches, performs the minor miracle each morning of having his kids dressed – with shoes on even, prying them from the Lego pile and depositing them to class on time. Long before me, I might add, who feels it necessary to get creative at the front office with my excuses, “Why was your child late this morning?” the clerk enquires with minimal interest, poised over her keyboard ready to enter “Overslept” into the system and get on with her day before I foil her with, “There was a philosophical difference within the family about whether or not the knobbly seam of a particular pair of socks was or was not a bearable cross to endure,”  or “My son took a toilet break like an octogenarian with a newspaper just as we were about to leave the house.” I think she’s sick of me.

Rhett doesn’t need to sign in late at the office, he’s a better parent than I in that regard but then,  I’ve never courted the steely eye of the law at school pick up so I must be doing something right… right? Or is it, shock horror, that he just had the audacity to turn up too early and too male (whoops, I mean suspicious) for school that day?

It proved a curious question for me and an anxious one for Rhett, as to why his presence warranted not one but four police officers to investigate.

“Do I look dodgy? Maybe my car looks dodgy, does my car look dodgy?”

“Do I look dodgy? Maybe my car looks dodgy, does my car look dodgy? Maybe someone dodgy owned my car before I bought it, do you reckon?” he questioned.

I didn’t have a clue about his last query, nor did I relish considering the unjust prejudices that people endure based solely upon some aspect of their appearance, but Rhett just looks like Rhett to me, a decent looking forty year old with a Mazda and a penchant for boardies and T-shirts, who, like the rest of us at school drop off, can often be seen clutching a morning coffee with the reverent tenderness you may normally bestow on a newborn puppy – nothing dodgy there.

These questions continued to fuel Rhett’s anxiety, however, so in the spirit of hard hitting journalism I sought some answers. After some thorough probing on my part a police spokesperson provided the following statement.

“Police take all reports of suspicious persons seriously and investigate appropriately.”

Phew! Thank goodness I cleared that up, we can now rest easy knowing that it’s appropriate to be accosted by no less than four officers on the odd chance a person reports you as suspicious. I don’t make light of children’s safety or dubious activity around schools but I think it’s sensible to recognise that a dad waiting to pick up their kids is not an emergency.

To be fair, though, after some off the record chit chat with my new contacts in Blue it was clear they were only doing their job and I concede innocent dads are not regularly targeted by police, not in my world at least – but there’s another story.

What it did reveal, however, on further discussion with Rhett and other dads, including my husband, was a common fear of being perceived as a threat or a perpetrator. On one occasion, at an indoor play centre Rhett saw a child fall over and start crying and despite wanting to help her, he didn’t. He was worried that his actions could be misinterpreted. Rhett felt conflicted at not going to the child’s aid but said he often found himself in similar situations and his sentiments were reiterated in the anecdotes given by the other men I spoke with. They relayed encouraging their kids to call them Dad loud enough for others to hear and thus, hopefully, find them less threatening.

A 2013 report on Personal Safety by the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed 95 per cent of all victims of violence in Australia report a male perpetrator. I dare to suggest that such statistics hold a place within our cultural psyche that gives weight to the vulnerability described by Rhett. I admit to being that mother eyeing the man hanging at the fringes of the playground, relinquishing my vigilance only when some doughy little toddler calls out for Dad.

“At first I was embarrassed and then angry that it’d happened and now walking through the school I’m really anxious about people thinking – there’s the guy.”

I considered the heavy stigma being carried by nurturing non-violent gentlemen and potentially, in future by my three caring sons. As a woman and a victim of violence, I’m not unfamiliar with strategies used to avert, avoid and survive (too many times in vain) the level of violence within our society. It is sobering, however, to understand that it’s not only women and girls who must brace against it.

When someone within Rhett’s community felt strongly enough to call the police while he waited for his children, it wasn’t funny. A deep fear had been realised, one that he’d combatted against. He’d been deemed a threat, thought of as a perpetrator, someone who might cause harm. It was distressing and humiliating and he worried that mud would stick.               

“At first I was embarrassed and then angry that it’d happened and now walking through the school I’m really anxious about people thinking – there’s the guy.” He explains.

When Rhett says, “There’s the guy”, I ask for a slight exertion in imagination to consider a rumour mill in overdrive after an unmarked police car with four officers spring into action at the school gate. “There’s the guy” could mean any number of embellished assumptions. I believe rumours become more colourful in direct correlation with the gossip’s need to boost their ego by how much they know and are willing to share. I heard unsubstantiated claims of “known paedophiles” being on school grounds. With that in mind I empathise with Rhett’s anxiety.

“It was how it looked that bothers me. All these things are going through my head as to who called, why they called? There are people out there who’ll say ‘toughen up mate’ but it affects you,” Rhett shares.

I suggest we aren’t in need of more tough guys. Good (punctual) Guys like Rhett, though, they’re in high demand!

All names have been changed in the article to protect privacy.

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