Education

She was suspended after saying she was sexually assaulted at school. Her mom asks why.

A Miami Gardens mother is questioning how the Miami-Dade school district handled her 14-year-old daughter’s allegations that she was sexually assaulted at Carol City Senior High.
A Miami Gardens mother is questioning how the Miami-Dade school district handled her 14-year-old daughter’s allegations that she was sexually assaulted at Carol City Senior High. Miami Herald File

A Miami Gardens mother says Miami-Dade schools police mishandled sexual assault allegations made by her 14-year-old daughter and pressured the teen into saying the on-campus encounters were consensual.

After her daughter told a teacher at Carol City Senior High last fall that she had been sexually assaulted in a school bathroom, a schools police officer questioned the teen for hours without notifying her parents, the mother says. The girl wrote a statement describing the alleged assaults, including crying during one of the incidents and telling one of the boys involved to stop as she “got him by his jacket and pushed him back.”

But after school officials questioned three boys involved in three separate encounters — they all said it was consensual — a schools police officer convinced the teen that if she said she had willingly participated she could avoid any further problems, according to what the girl told her mother.

“They said if i say that i wasn’t forced then i dont have to worry about it but if i say i was forced they have to look more into it,” she texted her mother that day, messages provided to the Miami Herald show.

The mother shared her account with the Herald in an interview conducted in English and Spanish at her home in Miami Gardens. Her name and her daughter’s name are being withheld to protect their identities. The sexual assault allegations were first reported by WSVN Channel 7 in February.

A spokeswoman for the school district said she could not discuss the specifics of the case or release any records because the investigation is ongoing. The district declined to make the schools police officer who interviewed the student or Carol City High Principal Ja Marv Dunn available for interviews.

“School district administrators, in conjunction with Miami-Dade Schools Police, are thoroughly investigating,” Chief Communications Officer Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said in an e-mail. “Information regarding the case has been provided to the State Attorney’s Office as well as the Department of Children and Families.”

According to the family’s version of events, at the urging of the schools police officer the student wrote a second statement on another sheet of paper saying that the encounters had been consensual. That addition does not appear on the copy of the statement the mother received, which she shared with the Herald. The mother said she’s not sure why that page is missing.

As a result, the student was suspended from school for a week, along with the three boys involved in the alleged incidents, according to the girl’s mother. The mother said she believes the school treated her daughter unfairly.

“They didn’t support my daughter when they should have supported her,” the mother said. “They preferred to safeguard the school’s image, which is already damaged.”

The family’s nightmare didn’t end there. A few days after the incident, schools police told the family that one of the boys was HIV positive and that another had gonorrhea, according to the mother. Later, the family heard from a schools police investigator that the boy denied having HIV, the mother said. The girl and her family still don’t know whether the boy is HIV positive.

The State Attorney’s Office said they discussed the case with schools police in November, and that they received reports on the case in mid-February.

Prosecutors are taking witness statements and reviewing evidence, said Chief Assistant State Attorney Esther Jacobo. “Hopefully we will be able to come to a determination in the next week or so” about whether to file charges, she said on Monday.

The Department of Children and Families confirmed that the incident was referred to the agency but said details on the status of the case are confidential.

Allison Hertog, an attorney representing the family, said her clients are filing a complaint with the Miami-Dade Schools Police internal affairs department for coercion, excessive length of questioning without notifying the mother, and for the delay in referring the case to the State Attorney’s Office. She said the mishandling of the investigation “jeopardized [the case] for prosecution.”

3 times last fall

The three incidents occurred last October and November, according to the family. A boy the student knew from one of her classes pressured her into the first encounter, but the encounter went beyond what the student felt comfortable with, according to what the girl later told her mother.

“I told him not to do anything but he did,” the teen wrote in the statement given to schools police. “He did it and didn’t say anything after.”

The boy told his friends about the encounter, according to the girl’s mother, and she became a target. Shortly after the first encounter, the girl came out of a bathroom at school to find another boy waiting for her. “He grabbed me tightly by my hand and he got me into the boys bathroom and he made me,” she wrote in the statement. “I couldn’t breath I choking and crying.”

The third incident happened when the student stayed after school for tutoring, according to the statement. The girl described an assault in a bathroom stall involving a friend of the first two boys. “I told him to stop,” she wrote. “I got him by his jacket and pushed him back.”

Immediately following the third encounter, the student told some friends what had happened, her mother said. The next day, she also told a female teacher at the school in terms that made it clear the encounters hadn’t been consensual, according to the mother. The student was called into the main office and questioned by school officials that morning, but her mother wasn’t notified until the end of the school day, according to the family. The mother said she had not previously known about the encounters.

When the mother arrived at the school, her mind was racing. “When you send your daughter to school to study, you assume the school is like a second family,” she said. “How could this happen at school? Where was the security?”

Suspended for ‘sexual misconduct’

Administrators told the mother that the three boys had written statements saying the encounters were consensual, the mother said. Two days later, the school called the mother and told her to pick up a suspension notice. School administrators said they were suspending all four students, according to the mother. A copy of the suspension notice, which the mother provided to the Herald, shows that her daughter was suspended for five days for “sexual misconduct.”

The notice says the student could participate in the Student Success Center program, which is an alternative to out-of-school suspensions. The Miami-Dade school district’s policy is to send students to the centers, where they can complete schoolwork, in lieu of having them stay home.

The student’s mother said she didn’t read the notice carefully and kept her daughter home from school.

The day the mother went to pick up the suspension notice, schools police came to the family’s home to deliver the news about the possibility of sexually transmitted diseases, the mother said. They urged her to take her daughter to the rape treatment center at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where doctors gave the student medication in the hopes of keeping her from contracting HIV.

Staff at the rape treatment center referred the student to Kristi House, a nonprofit that helps child sex abuse victims. Kristi House assigned a social worker to the case and has provided the student with therapy, the family said.

“Her life has changed completely,” the mother said. “Whether we like it or not, we’re planning as if she’s [HIV] positive for now until they tell us.” The family said they won’t know for sure for months.

When the five-day suspension ended, the girl was afraid to go back to Carol City Senior High. She remained out of school for four months.

Hertog described the suspension as “very severe” and is petitioning to have it expunged from the student’s record. After the suspension ended, the school called the mother every day to say her daughter was absent from school but did not conduct a truancy investigation or give her make-up schoolwork, Hertog said.

“It was as if she just disappeared from the face of the earth,” she said. “To me it speaks to that they knew they were trying to cover something up. If they truly believed this girl had engaged in something consensual, they’re going to treat her like anybody else and follow up.”

Mother has questions

The mother said she doesn’t understand why school staff questioned her daughter for hours without notifying her.

Gonzalez-Diego said the school district’s policy on notifying parents about an incident depends on the nature of the case.

A state statute on the rights of crime victims doesn’t explicitly address parental notification during the investigative stage of a case, but it does say that if the victim is a minor then the parent or guardian has the same rights as the child.

“Although it doesn’t seem to extend to the investigatory phase it certainly would make one question why the police, in terms of their guidelines or practices, would not at the very least notify the parents that their child was going to be questioned or give them the opportunity to be present — especially if they were the victim of a crime,” said David Edelstein, a former public defender and a criminal defense attorney who represents children. Edelstein was told about the case by the Herald.

Edelstein added that one factor courts consider in deciding whether to admit an accused child’s statement is whether or not the parents were present. “There seems to be some value to a parent being there with a child if you’re analyzing the admissibility of a juvenile accused of a crime,” he said. “That same value would be present for somebody whose child was a witness or victim.”

Edelstein added that child sexual assault victims should be treated carefully. “It has been generally recognized that only trained professionals should interview children in cases of sexual assault,” he said.

The Florida Attorney General’s Office protocols for sexual assault examinations, for example, caution examiners against “making judgments about what happened based on an adolescent’s demeanor or affect.” Although these protocols don’t apply to schools police, they provide an example of guidelines about the proper treatment of child sexual assault victims, Edelstein said.

“Acquaintance or ‘date rape’ is an under-reported type of sexual assault, and many victims feel guilty that it was their fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” the protocols state. “They must be reassured that the assault was not their fault and promptly referred for age-appropriate counseling programs.”

The mother of the Carol City Senior High student said she’s not just upset about how the school district handled the sexual assault allegations. Getting her daughter’s schoolwork so she didn’t fall too far behind and trying to transfer her to a new school were also an ordeal, she said. It wasn’t until Monday, March 5, that the girl was able to start classes at a new school.

Gonzalez-Diego said the school district has made every effort to assist the teen. “Every available service has been offered to the student,” she said.

The mother said she also struggled to get information about the status of the investigation from the schools police. The family learned that the school district had provided information about the case to the State Attorney’s Office only when WSVN Channel 7 included a statement from the school district in the news story.

In the meantime, the student has gotten what her mother described as bullying text messages from former classmates. She worries that the boys might try to retaliate against her for reporting the incidents and the family is considering moving to another neighborhood. The teen has tried to take refuge in caring for her younger siblings and in an online fan group for her favorite band, her mother said. She still has her schoolwork from Carol City Senior High, with notes written in bubbly pink and purple letters, neatly organized in folders.

The mother said she worries that other students at Carol City could be at risk of sexual assault. While her daughter was too afraid to return to Carol City Senior High, the boys “are at the school as if nothing happened,” she said.

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