Amid Public Outcry, Seattle Schools Changes Handling Of Sex Assault Allegations

Aug 20, 2014

Amid a fresh wave of public frustration over Seattle Public Schools' response to a 2012 incident on a Garfield High School trip, district officials outlined a plan for addressing future allegations of sexual violence against students.

The parents of a former Garfield High School student say district administrators failed in their legal duty to investigate their daughter's allegations that a fellow student sexually assaulted her during the school trip two years ago.

But at Wednesday's school board meeting, as a dozen protesters decried the district's handling of the case, interim superintendent Larry Nyland pledged the district would do better. He said district officials have undergone new training and implemented new procedures for handling "critical incidents."

Aside from drawing national attention and roping Seattle into a federal investigation into school districts' handling of reported sexual violence, the alleged victim's parents say the incident has turned their daughter's life upside down.

"Our family has gone through a nightmare, and that nightmare should never be any family's experience," the girl's mother said. KPLU is not disclosing the family's name to protect the girl's privacy.

What Happened In 2012

In the overnight hours between Nov. 6 and Nov. 7, 2012, a Garfield High School student snuck out of her bunk at a nature camp on the Olympic Peninsula while on a school trip to with 26 of her classmates.

What happened next — both that night, and in the year and a half since — is outlined in hundreds of pages of documents, including medical records, district reports and correspondence between school officials and the girl's parents.

"I find it pretty appalling and also not surprising," said Sylvie Nemeth, right, of the district's response to the sexual assault allegations. Nemeth is a 2013 graduate of Garfield High School.
Credit Kyle Stokes / KPLU

The 15-year-old sophomore climbed through a window into the boys' cabin to talk to a fellow Garfield student with whom she'd been texting that night. That's where she says the boy began having sex with her, despite her repeated pleas for him to stop.

Months later, the male student told a district-appointed investigator that the sex was consensual, though the boy added that he "did not pay attention to her that much," according to documents.

But the morning after the alleged incident, when a Garfield teacher and camp counselor took her to the emergency room of a Port Angeles hospital, the girl displayed telltale physical and emotional signs she'd been raped.

State, Federal Laws Require Inquiry, Immediate Accommodations

A criminal inquiry into the case resulted in no charges. Regardless, K-12 school officials are legally obligated under Title IX to "take immediate and appropriate steps" to conduct its own investigation separate from any criminal investigations. The same federal law requires educators to inform victims of their rights.

Washington state law requires districts to complete a formal investigation within a week, said Linda Mangel, education policy director at the ACLU of Washington.

In this case, as the girl spiraled downward, developing "full-blown" post-traumatic stress disorder that made it impossible for her to return to school, her parents say they weren't aware of the sexual assault laws that require the school to conduct an investigation and make immediate accommodations for their daughter to return to school.

"We were taking her to therapy, trying to deal with the aftermath of this whole thing. Our first concern was her well-being," her father recalled. "We weren't really thinking about, 'Well, what about investigating this?' We thought the district would be doing that."

'Schools Don't Understand They Have This Obligation'

Instead, the girl's parents say a confusing back-and-forth with school officials ensued as they asked for a clear plan for their daughter to return to school.

She never did. By February, the family had sent their daughter to a residential treatment facility out of state.

Still frustrated by the lack of answers, the parents filed a formal complaint with Garfield's principal and then-Superintendent José Banda in March. It wasn't until April — more than five months after the incident — that an official in the state's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction informed the parents of their rights to a timely investigation under federal law.

Though a recent U.S. Department of Education investigation has shined a light on non-compliance with sexual assault laws at colleges and universities, the ACLU's Linda Mangel says the problem may be "far more extreme" in K-12 schools.

"The problem is widespread," she said. "Schools don't understand they have this obligation, and because they don't understand they have this obligation, they don't have people in place whose job it is to meet this obligation."

The School District's Response

A lawyer began a formal investigation on the district's behalf in May 2013, seven months after the incident itself. He did interview the accused male student, but with the alleged victim in residential treatment and emotionally fragile, the investigator wasn't able to interview her.

A child holds up a sign criticizing the district's handling of 2012 allegations of sexual violence against a Garfield High School student during the Seattle School Board meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014.
Credit Kyle Stokes / KPLU

District officials say the parents provided incomplete documentation to support their daughter's allegations, and concluded in February 2014 that the district "does not have sufficient information to conclude that a sexual assault took place."

The parents argue the district ought to have interviewed their daughter immediately following the incident, as Title IX required, and say their offers in May 2013 to assist in the investigation were ignored.

On Wednesday night, Nyland, the interim superintendent, called the case "an incident of great concern to each of us, and one that we need to learn from and take vigorous action in terms of improving our practice."

Nyland also read a letter that stated the district has "established a Critical Incident Response Plan and trained administrators in how to respond to issues such as this" in the wake of the incident. The letter also called the results of its investigation into the incident "inconclusive."

The Aftermath

According to a report by Al-Jazeera America, which first brought the alleged victim's story to light, Seattle Public Schools is one of 23 K-12 school districts under investigation by U.S. Department of Education officials "for Title IX sexual violence issues."

The alleged victim's family has since moved away from Seattle, largely as part of an effort to get help for their daughter, who is now 17.

"Her whole world fell apart," the girl's mother recalled in a telephone interview. "Everything she knew about herself as a talented musician, a good student, a creative person, was no longer accessible to herself ... Her whole self-concept was destroyed."