A child blamed for her rape

Nicole Colson reports on a lawsuit alleging that a Missouri school district not only ignored a young girl's claims of rape, but punished her for coming forward.

Parents and community members protest the failure of the Republic School District to keep a young rape victim safeParents and community members protest the failure of the Republic School District to keep a young rape victim safe

IN ONE of the more stomach-turning cases in recent memory, a Missouri school is the subject of a federal lawsuit over allegations that it not only disregarded a middle school student's claim of rape, but made her write an apology to her attacker--who later went on to rape her again on school grounds.

According to the Springfield News Leader, the lawsuit alleges that when she was in 7th grade at Republic Middle School, the girl, whose name has been kept in confidence, told officials that she had been harassed, sexually assaulted multiple times and finally raped by a fellow student while on school grounds during the 2008-09 school year.

It's not clear why school officials refused to believe the girl's story, but after repeatedly subjecting her to what the lawsuit calls "intimidating interrogations," officials allegedly told the child that they thought she was lying. Her mother was later told that, during a meeting at which the mother was not present, the girl recanted her story.

While that may have satisfied school officials, the lawsuit points out that girl was a special needs student whose school file contains a psychological report saying that she "would forego her own needs and wishes to satisfy the request of others around so that she can be accepted." In other words, she may have recanted her story under pressure, in order to satisfy the adults who refused to believe her.

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The lawsuit also states that the girl continued to privately tell her school counselor that she had been raped, and that she "finally told school officials what they wanted to hear because they wouldn't believe her."

School officials then forced the girl to write an apology letter to her attacker--a letter they required her to personally hand to him, according to the lawsuit. She was then expelled for the remainder of the 2008-09 school year.

But the horror didn't end there. The lawsuit alleges that when the victim returned to school the following year, the school failed to comply with her mother's request to provide additional monitoring or safety precautions. The girl was "terrified that she would be sexually harassed, assaulted or raped again at school," according to the suit, and "spent her time during the 2009-2010 school year trying to avoid" her attacker.

She was repeatedly sexually assaulted by the same boy during the year--but "did not make additional reports to school officials about these sexual assaults because she was afraid that she would be accused of lying and be kicked out of school, much like the previous time she had tried to get help," the lawsuit states.

Finally, in February 2010, her attacker was able to hunt her down, drag her to the back of the school library and again rape her.

Once again, school officials said they didn't believe the student when she reported the crime, reportedly telling her that they had "already been through this."

A physical examination of the victim this time showed a positive finding for sexual assault. According to the lawsuit, DNA in semen found on the girl matched the DNA of the boy--who was later taken into custody and pled guilty to unspecified charges in juvenile court.

Despite the positive finding of the rape kit, school officials had one more additional torment in store for the girl--she was suspended for "disrespectful conduct" and, incredibly, "public display of affection."

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IF ANY of the charges in the lawsuit are true, there was an infuriating failure of school officials to protect a student they are charged with caring for.

The case also, unfortunately, reflects many of the worst aspects of how sexual assault is treated in our society--allegations of rape and sexual assault aren't taken seriously, victims aren't believed when they come forward, and victims are punished for speaking out about their assaults. That the case involves a child makes it especially heinous.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, rapes and sexual assaults of even young girls are not uncommon. One out of six American women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, according to the network--but some 15 percent of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 12, and 7 percent of girls in grades 5-8 say they have been sexually abused.

Although court documents don't specify the reason for the girl's placement in special education classes, studies suggest that people with intellectual disabilities are especially vulnerable to sexual assault. According to a report from The Arc, an advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities:

[O]ne study reported that 25 percent of girls and women with intellectual disabilities who were referred for birth control had a history of sexual violence (Sobsey, 1994). Other studies suggest that 49 percent of people with intellectual disabilities will experience 10 or more sexually abusive incidents (Sobsey & Doe, 1991).

Any type of disability appears to contribute to higher risk of victimization but intellectual disabilities, communication disorders and behavioral disorders appear to contribute to very high levels of risk, and having multiple disabilities (e.g., intellectual disabilities and behavior disorders) result in even higher risk levels (Sullivan & Knutson, 2000).

At the very least, if the school failed to report the student's sexual assault and rape allegations, a serious crime was committed--a breach of the state's mandatory reporting statutes, which require that teachers, principals or other school officials report to the state any reasonable suspicion of child abuse, including sexual abuse and assault, or neglect.

Adding insult to injury, the school district's response to the lawsuit has been to literally blame the victim for her rape, saying that the girl failed to use "reasonable means" to protect herself. Any damages the girl may have sustained, according to the school district's response, "were as a result of the negligence, carelessness or conduct of third parties over whom the District Defendants had neither control nor the right to control."

The school district is countersuing the girl's family for attorney's fees and court costs.

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THANKFULLY, NOT everyone is so willing to sweep sexual assault under the rug or blame the victim. On August 22, parents and community members packed a Republic School Board meeting to voice their outrage.

Some 50 protesters crammed the meeting hold signs that read "Ban rape, not books"--a reference to both the lawsuit and a recent school board decision to ban Slaughterhouse Five and another book from the district.

At least some outraged parents are now also organizing a campaign to vote the Republic School Board out of office.

One protester, 17-year-old Republic High School student Stephanie Manning, told her own story about being sexually harassed by a fellow high school student.

"He was talking about my breasts, saying how big he thought they were and asking to see them, which was inappropriate enough," she told KSPR News, explaining that her harasser's taunts eventually escalated to unwanted touching during gym class. "I went to the office about it, they weren't doing much."

That's why, Manning explained, she decided to stand in solidarity with the Republic Middle School student. "I needed people there for me, and I'm pretty sure she needs people there for her," Manning said.

Parent Theresa Bougher, who also attended the protest, told OzarksFirst.com, "I can't imagine people who've dedicated their lives to children letting harm happen to them and living with that, you know? I want [the victim] to know that she didn't do anything wrong, but the adults did. Yes, there should be some accountability."