Editor’s Note: Associated Press conducted a yearlong investigation into sexual assault in U.S. schools. Today is Part 2 of three. Part 1 was published yesterday.
Student sexual assaults by peers were far more common than those by adults or teachers over four years until 2015, according to an AP yearlong investigation.
There were seven assaults by students for every adult-on-child sexual attack reported on school property, AP’s analysis of the federal crime data showed.
Schools frequently were unwilling or ill-equipped to address the problem, AP found, despite having long been warned by the U.S. Supreme Court that they could be liable for monetary damages. Some administrators and educators even engaged in cover-ups to hide evidence of a possible crime and protect their schools’ image.
“No principal wants their school to be the rape school, to be listed in the newspaper as being investigated. Schools try to bury it. It’s the courageous principal that does the right thing,” said Dr. Bill Howe, a former K-12 teacher who spent 17 years overseeing Connecticut’s state compliance with Title IX, the federal law used to help protect victims of sexual assault in schools.
Laws and legal hurdles also favor silence. Schools have broadly interpreted rules protecting student and juvenile privacy to withhold basic information about sexual attacks from their communities. Victims and their families face high legal thresholds to successfully sue school districts for not maintaining safe learning environments.
“Everyone feels like we don’t have a problem, and the reason they feel that way is they have their heads in the sand,” said Oregon psychologist Wilson Kenney, who has helped develop student intervention programs.
Student-on-student sexual assaults live in the shadows compared to the attention paid to gun violence in schools, Kenney noted.
Chaz Wing’s legal fight with Brunswick Junior High offers a rare insight into a school investigation of student sexual assault allegations.
The AP reviewed about 1,500 pages of sworn testimony, emails, court documents and investigative reports, as well as videotaped depositions of 15 school administrators, teachers and police, and interviews with a dozen people tied to the case.
School and district officials declined AP’s interview requests. So did parents of some of the students accused in the attacks, except to say their sons were innocent.
The AP does not usually name alleged victims of sexual assault, but Wing and his parents decided to speak publicly in hopes of helping others.
“I don’t want this to happen to other kids,” said his mother, Amy Wing.
From Wing’s first days at Brunswick Junior High in September 2010, teachers say it was clear he was the type of kid bullies would target.
Overweight with a brown mullet, he had unpopular opinions and wasn’t shy about expressing them. He despised sports, video games and pop music. When other boys showed up for a class project in soccer jerseys, he displayed his love of gardening by wearing a hat and gloves, carrying a trowel and handing out flower-shaped sugar cookies.
Early on, Wing testified in his lawsuit, several boys cornered him at his locker, mocking him and calling him fat. They relentlessly harassed him with the “gay test,” a light touch on his shoulder that if he didn’t notice for 10 seconds, indicated he was gay, the bullies said. Before long, half the boys in the class were doing it.
Wing complained dozens and dozens of times to teachers, his guidance counselor and the principal. He complained so often that he came to be seen as an overly sensitive nuisance.
One teacher asked Wing if he was gay, he testified. “I told her ‘no’ and she said then don’t worry about it.”
Brunswick Principal Walter Wallace had formed an anti-bullying committee shortly after joining the school. In early 2010, Wallace testified that Brunswick students participated in a survey in which 1 in 6 pupils reported being regularly physically victimized. Wallace implemented a system for documenting student abuse, but it recorded only complaints that were confirmed and then only in the files of the accused, not the victim.
Wing and his mother met with Wallace, but they said the bullying continued.
Wing entered Brunswick Junior High with a “gifted and talented” designation, but by the time he started seventh grade in fall 2011, his academic marks had dropped. His harassment complaints were consuming so much of teachers’ time that they asked Wallace and his vice principal to take over.
“It wasn’t happening when we were watching and we were trying to keep a close eye on it,” one teacher testified, “but it was always around the corner and away from us.”
The principal said he thought Wing was becoming overly sensitive and made many reports teachers could not substantiate. But Wing’s seventh-grade counselor, Bunny Andrews, testified that she became “very, very concerned” as incidents began to pile up.
Wing “was bullied,” she said. “I could never deny that.”
The physical torment escalated dramatically, Wing testified: In November 2011, he said, he was sexually assaulted by classmates.
According to the lawsuit, the boys crawled under the door of the bathroom stall, put the blade of a small knife against his wrist, ordered him to the ground and overpowered him. One boy threatened to burn down his house, harm his family and kill his pets if anyone found out — then sliced into his right arm.
By the following February, a similar second incident occurred, Wing testified. He was changing clothes for gym in a locker-room stall because he felt self-conscious about his looks, he said. A boy pushed his way in as a second boy stood guard outside.
Wing was assaulted, he said. He stayed silent, he said, cowed by the threats of the first assault. A third rape occurred. Again, Wing didn’t speak out, he said, because he was afraid.
Still, records show the school knew Wing’s bullying had become more physical, including an attack he reported in which he was stabbed with a pencil, with the lead breaking off in his arm. A teacher began escorting him between classes, but Wing declined after two days.
“Please, just don’t. This is making things worse.”
Two weeks after Grade 7 ended, Amy Wing filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission — kicking off the legal fight that lasted more than four years.
Associated Press journalists Robin McDowell reported from Brunswick; Reese Dunklin and Emily Schmall from Dallas; and Justin Pritchard from Los Angeles. Part 3 of this series will be published tomorrow.