Feds Say Texas Student's Rape Claim Mishandled
By KELLY GOOCH
A former Henderson High School student said her alleged sexual assault by an acquaintance less than two years ago affected her emotionally and impacted her education.
"I'm still in shock. I'm nowhere near in shock as I once was, but it still keeps me up at night sometimes," the 19-year-old, who works in Longview, said during a phone interview Friday.
However, after an emotional breakdown and months of behavioral health training, she said she is a better person and emotionally stronger.
Years later, changes also are occurring in Henderson ISD as a result of the incident, according to documents released this month.
The school district must undertake 13 separate action items to ensure compliance with Title IX after federal officials said it failed to investigate a high school senior's allegation that the female student had been raped on campus in 2010.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which received a complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Texas, also said Henderson ISD punished the student improperly by placing her in a disciplinary program with the student she alleged attacked her.
"I feel excited and very overwhelmed and just jubilant with how it turned out. I'm very excited about how (the ACLU) helped ..." the female student said. "Of course, you (also) will get negative feedback from the public, which is not always easy, so it's bittersweet."
Office of Civil Rights officials ordered Henderson ISD officials earlier this month to revise its discrimination and sexual harassment policies and clear the student's disciplinary record.
The district punished the student and her alleged attacker for violating student rules after police concluded the incident was consensual.
According to a letter from the Office for Civil Rights, the woman alleged she was sexually assaulted by a male student in the band practice room at Henderson High School on Dec. 6, 2010.
After realizing what happened to her, she said she was scared and mad, "cleaned myself off" and told an assistant band director about the incident.
However, the Office for Civil Rights letter states, the assistant band director did not take action or report the incident to law enforcement or any Henderson ISD administrator or official. The woman said she stayed home the next day.
"I thought I was going to be safe. ... I was just scared and confused. I'm supposed to feel safe. I'm supposed to feel OK," she said.
When she returned to school Dec. 8, she told another assistant band director about what happened to her, and the band director immediately took her to high school administration, the letter states.
According to the letter, the assistant vice principal then contacted the school resource officer, which led to the student being taken to the Child Advocacy Center for an interview.
The assistant vice principal also talked to the student's mother when she came to the high school, the letter states, and an officer with the Henderson Police Department, who is assigned to the high school, informed his supervisor about the incident. According to the letter, a second Henderson police officer took the student to the advocacy center, and the assistant vice principal later contacted the district's Title IX coordinator, who asked whether law enforcement had been called.
After interviewing the student's mother and Henderson High School officials, it was determined that the Henderson Police Department notified the student's mother on Dec. 9, the police investigation was finished and that no charges would be filed against the alleged attacker, according to the letter. Instead, police determined that the incident was consensual.
On Dec. 13, the student's parent met with the high school principal and was told the student "would be disciplined based on the HPD's determination," the letter states.
Both students received a 45-day placement in the Disciplinary Alternative Education Program "for committing the infraction of 'public lewdness' under the HISD school code."
The female student was placed in the program on Jan. 5, 2011, in a different classroom than her alleged attacker. But the letter states the student said she saw her male acquaintance in passing several times a day.
According to the letter, she also said other students in the alternative education program said things to her about the incident.
However, a paraprofessional told the Office for Civil Rights that the female student only saw the male while waiting to enter the DAEP building and did not have to go through his classroom or see him when she went to the restroom, and a counselor also told the Office for Civil Rights that she walked the female student to the counselor's office for visits, according to the letter.
In the end, the letter states that the Office for Civil Rights found "sufficient evidence" that the district failed to appropriately investigate or respond to the student's allegations and did not comply with Title IX.
In a news release from the district, issued Friday, officials said high school administrators contacted the Henderson Police Department and cooperated with the police and district attorney on the investigation.
"After examining the evidence and conducting interviews, the police and district attorney investigation concluded with no criminal charges and determined the sexual conduct to be consensual," officials said in the news release.
"Title IX requires that a school district conduct an independent investigation regardless of whether a criminal investigation concerning the same allegation is pending. ISD has revised investigation procedures to meet Title IX requirements and continues to be committed to providing a safe environment for all of our students. HISD has entered into a resolution agreement with the Office (for) Civil Rights and is dedicated to achieving the specified action items."
Upon receiving the news from the Office for Civil Rights, the primary agency responsible for enforcing Title IX, Stephanie Bauman, staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas, said she hopes others learn from the student's experience.
"It's important to us what happened to (the student) is frankly egregious," Ms. Bauman said. "The goal is to make sure students like (her) aren't punished for reporting sexual violence."
She added, "I think it's important for school districts to understand when they hear about a complaint of gender-based violence or harassment, there's really a burden on them to investigate it. The school can't just rely on police departments to do that. It needs to look at it to make sure the burden on the victim is as minimized as possible."
With the 40th anniversary of Title IX, Ms. Bauman noted that many think of sports when they think of the federal law. However, she said it does affect all aspects of the educational experience, and the Henderson incident shows that Title IX has an important role to play in ensuring that all students have access to educational opportunities.
The female student echoed Ms. Bauman, saying she wants students to have a safe place to learn.
"Even if it happens outside (of school), they (should be able to) go to any administrator and say, 'Hey, can I confide in you?' and (the person will) handle it with sensitivity and be able to handle it ..." she said. "Unfortunately, it's going to happen to people where they can't help that. It happens, (but) I hope people are able to feel safe with their school environment and faculty."