When sexual assault victims and their offenders cross paths at school
Editor’s note: This story involves juvenile court cases, the details of which are sealed by the courts. The parents of victims in the case have agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity for themselves and their children. The juvenile victims in this case have been assigned pseudonyms selected by their parents.
MIDDLEBURY — Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans is preparing a notice to all local high schools advising officials about their obligations to not only provide equal access to public education, but also to ensure that sexual assault victims and their perpetrators are not encountering each other on campus.
Such unhappy meetings are happening too often in Addison County schools, Wygmans said. School leaders struggle with their Constitutional obligations to provide a public education to all youngsters, including juveniles judged guilty of sex crimes, while also adhering to laws that require school to provide an environment that is free from sexual harassment.
Key among those laws is Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which prohibits, among other things, “sexual harassment and sexual violence in educational institutions, both of which are manifestations of gender discrimination, by requiring schools to implement strategies to safeguard students from such behavior perpetrated by school personnel or peers.”
Title IX goes further, “requiring schools to effectively address such misconduct when it occurs on campus or in connection with any educational or extracurricular program.”
So school officials are sometimes forced to make tough calls on whether a juvenile offender and his or her victim(s) can coexist on campus, and if so, how to make sure they are kept at a distance from one another and still receive equal access to school services.
“A lot of administrators struggle with ‘How do I meet my educational mission’ — especially in the scenario where you have limited resources,” Wygmans said. “Let’s say it’s a special education classroom, and it’s the only one. Or special training class, and it’s the only one. Do you now, all of a sudden, have to create a class for one person because of the fact they are in these circumstances? I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that if you are willfully disregarding a court order in this area, you may be violating Title IX and opening yourself up to both personal liability and the school district up to liability as well.”
Some young victims have elected to leave their home school rather than run the risk of rubbing shoulders with their alleged assailant, according to a series of interviews conducted by the Independent.
“Penny” had been dating a teen attending Middlebury Union High School in 2017 when her young life suddenly went into a tailspin. The boy — also a juvenile — had sexually assaulted her during a date. Penny’s mom reported the incident to police, who investigated the complaint. The Addison County State’s Attorney’s Office reviewed the police investigation and charged Penny’s ex-boyfriend with offenses that included two counts of sexual assault, and one count of first degree aggravated domestic assault.
The ex-boyfriend’s case was ultimately transferred to, and adjudicated by, juvenile court, with an outcome that included lengthy counseling for the youth in an out-of-town setting.
It should be noted that all juvenile court proceedings are sealed.
School officials aren’t allowed to publicly discuss matters of student discipline.
NOT THE LAST CHAPTER
Penny and her mom were confident they had seen the last of Penny’s former boyfriend. They had taken out a temporary restraining order against him and believed this sad chapter in their lives was closing.
But that wasn’t the case.
Penny and her mom learned earlier this year that the ex-boyfriend was back in the area and had gained admittance to the Patricia Hannaford Career Center — where Penny would be attending classes during the 2019-2020 academic year.
“I had to call Penny at school and say, ‘I’m coming to pick you up, we have to go to WomenSafe,’” her mom said. “I knew she wouldn’t be able to drive herself. I went and picked her up and said, ‘By the way, not only is he back, he’s at the high school (doing extracurriculars) like nothing ever happened.’ For her, the two years of counseling was ripped away.”
Penny was so distraught she had to be monitored for self-harm, according to her mom, who was shocked at the turn of events.
“They were getting ready to put (him) into the program — in the same career center Penny would be attending — and we had no notification from the school or anybody,” Penny’s mom alleged.
So Penny withdrew from the career center and elected to attend a different high school on a full-time basis.
“(Penny) decided to switch schools for a multitude of reasons,” her mom said. “A fresh start was one of them.”
Penny wasn’t the only student who with claims of being victimized by Penny’s ex-boyfriend.
“Mia” and “Jack” had also alleged episodes of sexual abuse at the hands of the boy while they were playmates around a decade ago, according to their mom, who said no official charges were ultimately filed in the case. The episodes allegedly occurred when the children were between the ages of 6-8, their mom said. The brother and sister, now in their late teens, began therapy several years ago to deal with the residual, emotional pain stemming from the alleged abuse, according to their mother.
Mia and Jack continued to attend school with the youth who had allegedly abused them, trying to steer clear of him, their mother said. That wasn’t always successful, according to their mom.
“There were instances where Mia, at the high school, would be in the gym getting ready for sports, and (her alleged aggressor) would come over and sit one or two seats below her,” she said.
“Fortunately, therapy gave her good coping mechanisms to work through anxiety and stressors.”
But when Mia and Jack’s alleged abuser was charged in the case involving Penny, it triggered bad memories that they had both been trying to learn to live with, according to their mother.
“Both of my kids started experiencing some pretty big signs of depression,” Mia and Jack’s mom said. “We went to the administration in September 2017 to say to them, ‘Look, there’s a history with this kid, this is what’s happening to my son right now — he’s getting depressed, he doesn’t want to come to school. We requested that they consider doing some form of separation without making (Jack) tell on (his aggressor), whenever he saw him or came into contact with him. That didn’t really work well for the school.
“Without full disclosure of our incident and what was currently happening for Jack, the school’s hands were tied, they couldn’t really do a lot to support him,” she added.
Jack ended up dropping out of MUHS in December of 2017.
“It was suggested that he could seek alternative schooling through either an area school and/or the Vermont Adult Learning Center, that he could get his GED,” his mom said.
Meanwhile, Mia last year began experiencing severe anxiety and depression, which her mom believes was triggered by her alleged aggressor’s arrest, according to her mom.
“She was diagnosed with PTSD,” she said. “She was placed on a permitted medical leave through MUHS. After three professional letters being provided to the school, (the school administration) did commit to some tutoring (at ACSD expense) outside of school, and she met with the tutor at the library for a few weeks.”
Ultimately, Mia was placed on medical leave and on watch for potential self-harm, according to her mom. She finally transferred to another high school early this year, around the same time her alleged aggressor was again spotted in the Middlebury area after having completed his court-mandated, out-of-state counseling. His return to town prompted Jack to quit his local job this past April out of concern of seeing his alleged aggressor, according to Jack’s mom.
SCHOOL ACTION PLANS
Addison Central School District Superintendent Peter Burrows could not address the cases above, but said school officials discuss an action plan to accommodate any student with special needs — including the need to be separated from another student.
“I think in any situation like that, you first of all look at the rights of individuals,” Burrows said. “School districts have to follow a legal course of action. Every situation is different. We often take our direction from the courts, in terms of the requirements they may enact.
“Our job is to support all students in all sorts of different ways,” he concluded. “We act with that intention.”
Tucker F. Jones, a deputy state’s attorney and victim’s advocate, said that cases involving sexual violence among high school students are rare.
“But among those cases, in my experience it is common for victims to be subjected to ongoing contact with perpetrators at school,” he said.
Jones said school administrators need more training on how to handle such situations.
“I am concerned that some school administrators incorrectly defer to the court process and fail to implement these policies when they learn about allegations of sexual misconduct,” he said. “The court process is not a substitute for the school-based victim protections offered by school harassment policies.
Wygmans wants to make sure school districts know what their responsibilities are when it comes to juvenile offenders and victims. He will give local school districts direction through a memo he expects to send off later this winter. Wygmans said his letter is expected to touch on the following points (and more):
• “If a complaint is raised, a school has to investigate that complaint when it has to do with any kind of sexual impropriety. Most people are familiar with it when it comes to college campuses, because that’s the area where it’s most highly publicized. But it also applies to our grade schools and high schools. And I think a lot of people are ignorant to that fact — the same rules that apply to the campuses at college also apply to our other schools.”
• “If the school has a policy (on accommodating juvenile offenders and victims), they have to follow it. The interesting thing is that the case law is kind of like, ‘If you don’t have a policy, you’re almost in the clear, as far as these complaints are concerned, to a certain extent. There are basic things you have to do, but you can’t sue a school if no complaint was made, if there’s no policy and one doesn’t exist.”
“What it created was this big gaping hole … But you still have to do these basic things, such as investigate (allegations). So where a school is really on the hook is when someone has made a complaint — especially if they have a policy, they’d better darn well follow it, otherwise they’re going to run into some real problems.”
• Schools need to be more involved and included in the juvenile delinquency and truancy cases and how they get resolved. It would be especially helpful if a school representative was at court proceedings, according to Wygmans.
“We really need to have the school in on this conversation, because where are those children going to be spending most of their time?” Wygmans said. “Even when you include summer vacation, kids are still spending a lot more time at school than they are at home.”
• “When you’ve got a court order and you’re a school administrator and you’re trying to figure out what the order means, the decision shouldn’t be made by some bureaucrat at the school. If (the order) is ambiguous or you don’t comprehend how you can uphold the intent of that particular condition, the proper forum is then to apply for status with the court, and say, ‘We are an interested party because…’ and please tell us what this means.
“If you throw up your hands and say, ‘I don’t know what this means so I’m not going to do anything,’ you may actually be violating the law with regard to Title IX,” he added.
As evidence, Wygmans noted the U.S. Supreme Court, in its May 1999 decision in Davis v. Monroe, held that school boards are liable for failing to stop student-on-student harassment under certain circumstances.
• Protection of the individual, in the court’s eyes, will often trump an offender’s expectation of being able to receive schooling on the same campus as his or her alleged victim.
“You lose certain rights when a court makes a finding that protection is necessary because of abuse,” Wygmans said. “That’s just the way it is. It might not seem fair when you’re looking from the outside in — especially for a school administrator who feels that conflict of ‘All kids are supposed to have access to education, and socialization is part of being educated.’ Unfortunately, the law has already decided that the protection of the individual is more important than the exercise of that access to education.”
LACK OF SUPPORT
Mia, Penny and Jack continue to pick up the pieces of their lives, with the help of their families and counseling.
Penny’s mom has retained an attorney to pursue a “parental liability” case against her daughter’s ex-boyfriend.
The Addison Independent reached out to the parents of the youth at the center of the two cases described above. The boy’s father, through an email, declined comment for this article.
The parents of Mia, Penny and Jack are angry about what they said was a lack of support from MUHS officials and are focusing on potential legislative remedies.
“We’re going to work hard to change this youthful offender statute, because that statute does nothing to protect the victims and does everything to support the offender,” Penny’s mom said. “In my opinion, as the parent of a victim, ‘youthful offender’ should never be an option for a violent or sexual offense.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.