She Reported a Sexual Assault—and the School Suspended Her
Despite protests, and police charges against the alleged assailant, education officials are not backing down from disciplining the accuser.
A student in Charlotte, North Carolina, who claims she was sexually assaulted in her high school bathroom reported it to an assistant principal and then the police. She sat for a 45-minute police interview, recounting the incident in which, she says, a fellow student put his hands down her pants and up her shirt without her consent.
The police charged him with two counts of sexual battery.
The school suspended her.
Despite fierce criticism and protests, the Hawthorne Academy of Health Sciences has refused to back down from its decision to discipline the 15-year-old girl—stunning her and her mother.
“Schools teach your kids, ‘You see something, you say something. If you feel threatened, you say something,’” her mother told The Daily Beast this week. “And in this case my daughter did, and it seems that the school system has failed her.”
The girl, a sophomore at the academy who asked to remain anonymous, told The Daily Beast the boy had been harassing her for weeks, following her into the bathroom and groping her without her consent. The student says she did not report it until she attended a Title IX assembly in late August or early September, where administrators encouraged students to come forward about instances of abuse. She had hesitated before, she said, because she was afraid no one would believe her.
Around the time of the assembly, the girl spoke with another student who told her she had had a similar experience with the same assailant. The two of them brought their allegations to the assistant principal, who notified the police, triggering an investigation. (A copy of the police report reviewed by The Daily Beast states that two minors reported that the suspect “attempted to engage in sexual contact against the victims will.”) A few weeks later, her mother said, the police called to say the alleged assailant had confessed. He was later charged with two counts of sexual battery.
Shortly thereafter, however, the girl’s mother received a call from the assistant principal to say that the school had found no evidence of a sexual assault, and instead believed her daughter had fabricated the report. As punishment, her daughter would be suspended from school for one day and forced to sign a non-retaliation letter. There was no mention of any punishment for the male student. (A letter from the assistant principal to the mother, which was reviewed by The Daily Beast, reiterates these findings.)
“I said to her, ‘I’m a little confused because this student admitted to the detectives that interviewed him at the police station that he did in fact do this,’’' the mother recalled. “And she said, ‘Unfortunately, what the police department does has nothing to do with the school system.’”
In a statement, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston said he could not disclose “confidential information about such matters as individual student discipline or ongoing police investigations.” The Hawthorne principal and assistant principal did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
When the mother posted her account on a community Facebook page, fellow parents began calling the school to demand answers. Then the assistant principal called to say her daughter’s suspension would be placed on hold until a second investigation was completed, but she would still be required to take a weekend class called “Sexual Harassment Is Preventable.” In addition, while the investigation was pending, she would be barred from participating in after-school activities with the ROTC. The boy also belonged to ROTC but, to her knowledge, he was not barred from participation.
News of the suspension, first reported by local news station WBTV, caused an uproar in the school community. Some 100 of the approximately 255 students at the school walked out of class Wednesday in protest. The mother said parents in the district had also reached out to offer their support.
The school, however, has been largely silent. The mother said she had not heard from the district until Friday—after The Daily Beast reached out for comment—when a member of the Title IX office called to say they were investigating the allegations, too. She has never heard from the school principal about the incident, and school board members questioned by WBTV refused to comment.
In his statement last week, Winston said it was “difficult” for him “not to give in to the parental instinct of providing information to help others gain a better understanding of situations, which many times prove more complex than news reports might lead one to conclude.”
“We take all allegations of misconduct very seriously, and our staff is trained to follow proper procedures in reporting,” he said. “District leaders review assertions of Title IX reporting problems and will take appropriate action in the event any review reveals action is necessary.”
This is not the first time the Charlotte-Mecklenberg school district has come under fire for its handling of sexual assault reports. Two former students at the neighboring Myers Park High School sued the district earlier this year, claiming the school did nothing when they reported their assaults. The lawsuits spurred protests outside the high school and the government center this summer, as well as testimony from survivors to the school board.
“I can tell you why I didn’t report what happened to me—because Myers Park High School told me there was nothing they could do to help me,” one student, who claimed she was raped in the woods near the school when she was 14, told the board. “I should have felt safe at Myers Park High School and I did not.”
In response, the school district created a Title IX Task Force and launched an awareness campaign, which included anti-harassment posters and letters to students about how to report misconduct. The former principal of Myers Park was suspended and later transferred to an administrative position, though the school did not specify why.
The mother of the Hawthorne student said the school’s reaction has made her daughter wonder whether she made the right choice in coming forward.
“She questions whether she did the right thing or not,” she said. “So we just have to keep reassuring her that what you did was right, and you shouldn’t let anybody make you feel any other kind of way.”