'The first time he kissed me, I cried'
Shining a light on sex crimes, Part II
February 12, 2021
Sexual abuse survivor K.M. addressed the courtroom during the sentencing for her former high school basketball coach, Robert Pioro, at the Carlton County Courthouse Friday afternoon.
She read a victim impact statement to the people in the courtroom — including Pioro and one of his attorneys — and a host of people watching the proceedings online.
“The first time he kissed me, I cried. I can still remember how disappointed I felt knowing that everything had changed. As I cried, he told me that some parents kiss their kids on the lips. And then he kissed me again. I felt so confused because even though it made me cry, he did it again,” K.M. told the court.
It was 20 years ago, but she can remember many things like they were yesterday, K.M. told the Pine Knot News in an interview Sunday. Although she was willing to be named in this story — in part because many people told her they weren’t surprised when they found out — the Pine Knot elected to use her initials instead. People who went to school with her or who knew her then will be able to put the story together, something she wants. But her name won’t be forever tied to Pioro on the internet.
“I wish I would’ve gone home that day and told my parents,” she told the court. “Looking back, I’m surprised that I didn’t, being that it was such an uncomfortable experience for me. But it never crossed my mind to tell an adult. By the time he kissed me, Mr. Pioro had spent a great deal of time building a close relationship with me and convincing me to trust him. By the time he kissed me, he had invested hours of talking to me at school and rebounding for me in the gym. He often told me I was special and that our relationship was special. He told me he cared about me like a daughter. He told me he loved me. He bought me gifts. He isolated me from my friends.”
But Pioro wasn’t her parent, he was a trusted coach and mentor. They’d met first when she was in eighth grade and he was the boys basketball coach and a teacher. It was her ninth-grade year at Carlton High School when he started paying extra attention to her.
Her sophomore year, Pioro became the girls basketball coach. He was not a nice coach, she said, and treated her even more harshly than the other girls, telling her that he only yelled because he cared. It was so excessive, verbally abusive, that a parent from an opposing team once approached her after a game to make sure she was OK.
K.M. was a junior when Pioro’s attentions crossed the line into the sexual.
She said Pioro began making physical advances toward her months before he kissed her, finding excuses to hug her in secret during school, holding her hand at other times when they were out of sight of others.
“The next time he kissed me, I remember feeling uncomfortable and confused — because hadn’t I cried last time? — but feeling like I needed to go along with what was happening as if it was normal. Saying no wasn’t an option. He had already gotten me to a place where I didn’t want to say no to him. Why would I say no to someone who continually told me they cared about me and how special I was?” K.M. told the court.
When she talks about that time in her life and their relationship, K.M. always refers to her abuser as “Mr. Pioro.” She never called him Rob or even coach. Just “Mr. Pioro.” That’s how she thought of him then, and it’s still how she thinks of him.
According to RAINN, an anti-sexual violence organization, one in nine girls and one of 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult. Of all victims under 18, two-thirds are between the ages of 12 and 17.
Perpetrators of child sexual abuse are usually known to the victim. According to RAINN, 93 percent are acquaintances or family members. Only 7 percent are strangers.
“As the assaults escalated, I felt more and more confusion as my innocence was so carelessly stolen from me,” K.M. told the court. “As an inexperienced 16-year-old who had only ever been kissed by her 42-year-old basketball coach, I clearly remember freezing up yet desperately wanting to get away thinking to myself, Why would he touch me there? I didn’t understand and I felt awkward, but I still trusted him.”
Kylee Pass is an advocate and trainer with First Witness in Duluth, a nonprofit child advocacy center that provides a safe place and services for victims of child sexual and physical abuse to tell their story. They serve the youngest of children through age 17.
An advocate’s job is to support the victims emotionally and by connecting them to any needed services, guide them through the investigation and legal process and keep reminding them that it isn’t their fault they were abused, that it’s something someone else did to them.
“I think a lot of the themes that we see with teens and adolescents is these crimes aren’t necessarily like they got scooped out of the dark and something happened,” Pass said. “They are manipulated into these relationships.”
“Kids inherently respect adults — that’s the way our society works. It’s inherent that children are supposed to look up to adults,” Pass said. “And it’s the adults’ position to keep all kids safe.”
Pass said abusers will often look for more isolated victims, kids who are shy or have low self-esteem, or those facing additional challenges that make them more vulnerable.
“Then they’re going to start gaining that person’s trust,” Pass said. “They may start with something super mundane like a common interest or something both enjoy. … Maybe they bond over a nonsexual thing that builds the relationship.”
Next, the abuser will work to gain the trust of those around them, maybe a child’s family, or a social group. Sometimes the manipulator is well-known and trusted in a community, so people don’t question their motives. Other times they start filling a need: maybe a child has only one parent and they provide extra supervision, creating a sense of dependency on the manipulator, Pass said. Maybe they buy things a teenager otherwise couldn’t get, like cigarettes or alcohol, and make them feel grown-up. Or maybe they fill an emotional need, giving extra attention or affection.
Once they’ve created a situation of dependency and trust, the manipulator takes it to the next level, and starts isolating a kid, creating opportunities to be alone with them.
“Sexual crimes or sexual assault don’t happen out in the open. It doesn’t happen where anyone can see it,” Pass said, “So they’re going to work to isolate that person. Maybe it’s inviting them into their classroom at the end of the day, or babysitting for that family.”
At Carlton High School, K.M. helped Pioro in the classroom as well as working with him as a basketball player. She also babysat his kids.
Pass said the next step for many abusers is to “test the waters” by sexualizing the relationship, commenting how good someone looks or touching them on the back or thigh and normalizing the touches.
Control comes next, and secrecy, Pass said, telling a child or teen that it has to be their secret, or the abuser or both of them could get in trouble.
“On top of feeling like I didn’t want to disappoint him, he told me he would lose his job if I told anyone,” K.M. told the court. “He told me he would kill himself if I told anyone. He placed the responsibility of his poor decisions on the psyche of a teenager. It took many years into adulthood before I believed that I was not committing my own sin but was a victim.”
Pass said there are lots of reasons why kids don’t talk about sexual abuse. They can be pretty afraid to speak up or say anything, or potentially they just don’t see themselves as the victim in that situation. That’s common, specifically with adolescents, Pass said.
The scenario with K.M. and her coach followed a common pattern. She didn’t know that at the time, but said during her interviews with law enforcement and others in the criminal justice system that people weren’t surprised by her story, commenting more than once: “That’s what they do.”
The abuse took place on a regular basis over a long period of time, K.M. said. It’s affected her entire life, she said, coloring her relationships with friends as well as romantic partners.
“At a stage of development when I was forming my self-image, self-worth and relationships with peers, I was forced to carry a huge secret and engage in a sexual relationship I did not have the capacity to handle, or the ability to consent to,” K.M. told the court. “The person who was trusted to be my teacher and coach was doing shameful things to me, disregarding how it made me feel. What was my teenage self learning when he saw me cry before, during, or after, yet that didn’t stop him from doing it again? This was how I learned about sex, relationships, and love. ...
Worse still, he made me believe that I was a willing participant in such a shameful relationship. The truth is, I never had a choice.”
It took her 18 years to realize that she didn’t do anything wrong, K.M. said. It was only two or three years ago that she started examining her life and realizing how many issues arose from her relationship with Pioro: “It made sense that I responded to his attention,” she said. “That is a natural response. I was so coachable.”
In his argument for sentencing Pioro to time in prison, assistant Carlton County attorney Jeffrey Boucher pointed out that Pioro was in multiple positions of elevated trust as a teacher and coach.
“We teach our children to listen to their teacher, follow the directions of their coach,” Boucher said. “We trust as a society that our teachers will take care of the physical well-being of our children and the development of their minds. We trust our coaches to develop in our children the striving for personal excellence, working together as a team, development of fair play and sportsmanship. Most people who take on those elevated positions of trust, know that trust comes with additional responsibilities and expectations. In this case, that also came with an opportunity. An opportunity to develop an inappropriate sexual relationship with a child.”
Sixth District judge Robert Macaulay sentenced Pioro to 33 months in prison.
K.M. said she is satisfied with the sentence. She had high praise for everyone involved in the investigation and court case, their professionalism and how well they treated her. Hearing Boucher describe what Pioro did in the courtroom was incredibly validating, she said.
“That’s the very worst thing that Mr. Pioro did to me,” K.M. told the court. “He made me believe that, at the core of my being, there is something wrong with me. That not only did I do something bad, but that I am bad.”
Taking control of her story has been life-changing, K.M. said. She still has ups and downs, but she’s in a much better place than she was even a year ago. Telling people what happened to her helped with the healing process, K.M. said. It’s lifting the burden of that secret. So is therapy, and reading books, and realizing how she was manipulated — in ways that weren’t even original to Pioro, just textbook moves of an abuser.
“[K.M.] is more than just a victim, she is a survivor of this abuse,” Boucher said.
This story is part 2 of a continuing series "Shining a light on sex crimes" running in the Pine Knot News.