By STEVE SOUTHWELL
Lewisville ISD failed one of our students back in 2012. As we learned in court, the then-14-year-old was at an off-campus party, where she said two members of the Hebron High School 9th Grade Campus football team forced themselves on her.
Traumatized by the attack, the student was further traumatized in school, triggered by the taunts and bullying of her classmates, who she said called her a slut and a whore, and even told her she should kill herself.
Evidence at trial showed district officials doubted her story without interviewing her.
The trial that concluded last week in federal district court in Sherman resulted in the jury finding that none of LISD’s actions or inaction in the case rose to a level of civil liability under Title IX. It was a fair application of the law, but hardly a vindication.
While the district is generally full of caring teachers and administrators who go the extra mile for students, this was a case where the system faltered.
A girl who said she was a victim of a serious crime had no escape from her attackers, whom she had to attend school with. The bullies made it hell for her, when she had post–traumatic stress disorder from the rape, according to her psychiatrist.
When the incident was reported to the district, its employees were unable to pull together a coordinated and thoughtful response. Instead it was offered that she could attend another school.
They passed the buck. They failed to investigate. They failed to stop other students from bullying her. In her words, they tried to sweep it under the rug.
Administrators decided early on that they didn’t believe her, even though they didn’t interview her or investigate. They decided to violate district policy and Title IX by delaying an investigation beyond a reasonable amount of time for police to investigate. The Department of Education says that schools must investigate promptly and that a law enforcement investigation does not relieve them of that duty. For 88 days they sat on their hands. Someone dropped the ball.
I don’t believe any of this reaction was malicious, and I certainly understand how it could be very hard for educators to handle something that is normally dealt with in a criminal prosecution.
But we have to do better. As a school district and as a community, we have to do better. As parents, we have to do better. We seem to be good with telling girls how not to be raped. We need to talk to our boys about what consent means.
Sexual assaults happen all-too-often in our community, and are often not reported to the police or school authorities. In the course of this case, we learned about numerous other incidents of sexual assault involving Hebron students.
When a woman does report a rape, it often results in members of the community scrutinizing her story in ways that we never would do for victims of other crimes.
They question her character and ask what she was wearing, and how much she had to drink, or why she was there at the hour, or if she should have been there in the first place. Perhaps that reaction is some sort of unconscious wishful thinking that seeks to find some fault with the victim so they can believe themselves and their own loved-ones immune to the risk.
As community members, it’s our right and our place to demand that our school district be a safe place, and that it protect students to the best of its ability. Public schools are unique in that the law compels students to attend. When they are victimized by other students, they can’t simply disengage. And it’s not really fair to ask a crime victim to uproot their scholastic life and move to another school.
The school’s investigation required them to establish a reasonable belief of what occurred before they could take action against the boys to separate them from the victim. Since the Carrollton Police Department had the criminal end of the investigation, and LISD was scared of its own investigation interfering, it resulted in the unreasonable delay. The girl would not return to school, and ended up in the district’s homebound program, which she said caused her to fall behind.
Under Texas law, school districts can have their own police force that can conduct criminal investigations. I don’t know if this is the answer, but maybe if the district had an experienced investigator on staff with the powers of a sworn police officer, but the duty to carry out the Title IX part of the investigation, things could have been different. Perhaps they could have cooperated with city police on fact–finding, even while applying a different standard of proof and usage of that information. I asked LISD about this, but got no answer.
Jacquielynn Floyd, Metro columnist with the Dallas Morning News wrote a column entitled “Texas school district’s sexual assault investigation is a textbook lesson in ignoring the victim.” I wish I could reprint it here, because I agree with nearly every word of her assessment that the unwritten procedure for investigating this was to, “Discourage the victim from complaining. Delay, dissemble. Urge the victim to disappear. Uncover as few facts as possible, then say there aren’t enough facts to warrant any action.”
We don’t spend much time here at The Lewisville Texan Journal urging our readers to read other publications, but in this case, we have to ask you to please go read Floyd’s column from March 23.
Read it online here…
I don’t claim to have the solutions to this problem in LISD. But I do have hope that this publicized case will serve as a wake–up call to the community and to the district about the need to ensure that our schools provide help to victims of crime.
We should press our elected and appointed officials to ensure that systems and procedures are in place, to ensure that staff are trained appropriately to handle these situations more professionally and in a more coordinated way than what happened in this case.
To read The Lewisville Texan Journal’s coverage of the Title IX trial in Sherman, click here.