‘Long journey to heal.’ Myers Park students who reported rape press CMS for action

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A pair of recent petitions and two older lawsuits from former Myers Park High School students have put a spotlight on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ response to reports of sexual violence on campus.

Former students Jill Roe and Jane Doe — the names listed on lawsuits to protect their identities — allege school administrators and a police officer assigned to the campus mishandled their reports of being raped in the woods adjacent to Myers Park High in 2014 and 2015. Doe sued in November 2018; Roe in December 2019.

The Roe case was settled for $50,000 this spring, and subsequent news coverage, along with students organizing petitions this month, have renewed attention on safety at Myers Park High.

In court filings related to both lawsuits, school officials largely deny the female students’ allegations. CMS officials answered questions from The Observer last week, explaining steps the district takes to ensure student safety.

CMS officials are required to investigate reports of sexual violence at school, and employees are given annual training on how to handle such cases. Under a part of federal education law commonly referred to as Title IX, sexual violence on campus is considered a form of sex-based harassment, which federally funded schools like CMS are required to address when complaints arise.

WBTV earlier this month reported that CMS officials did “virtually nothing” to address the allegations of rape by the two students. That prompted a rare, unsigned and highly critical post on the CMS Board of Education’s Facebook page, claiming the TV story “contained numerous misstatements of fact that compel us to correct the record.” The lengthy statement was later deleted.

CMS officials did not explain why the statement was taken down, and have said they will not give details on either case, citing litigation and student privacy.

Both lawsuits contain disturbing accounts of sexual violence and detailed descriptions of conversations each female student had with peers at school, as well as with Myers Park school officials, shortly after the alleged assaults. The names of the accused male students are not given in the court filings but it’s evident it is not the same student.

Myers Park student lawsuits

Key details of the lawsuits include:

Both female students allege they were dissuaded by school officials from initiating a criminal investigation.

Roe, who was 15 at the time, says in the lawsuit that on the same day the school resource officer heard her report of sexual assault, he told her there was insufficient evidence a rape had occurred. She says she was warned that if an investigation yielded no criminal charge, she could be punished for having sex at school.

In court filings, Principal Mark Bosco and Officer Bradley Leak, who was the Myers Park High school resource officer at the time, both deny they hindered Roe from filing a police report about the alleged assault. Before the settlement, a judge dismissed the civil lawsuit against Leak and some of the claims against Bosco.

The Doe lawsuit is pending, with a judge writing last year that there is initial evidence her report of sexual assault was likely not properly handled. Some parts of the lawsuit have been dismissed.

According to Doe’s lawsuit, Leak saw but did not take “immediate” action to help after seeing 17-year-old Doe being led into the woods by an 18-year-old male student. Leak said in a court filing he spotted both students — and called out to ask where they were going — but said they appeared to be heading back to campus, not the woods, and he returned to his office to call the female student’s mother.

Around the same time, according to the lawsuit, Doe texted her mother saying she needed help, and friends who got alarming texts from Doe while she was in the woods that day went to Leak’s office, saying she was in danger. The lawsuit states that her father also called the school that morning and says Leak told him Doe was simply skipping class. Within an hour, Doe says, she was picked up in Leak’s car, near the woods, where she told him she had been sexually assaulted.

CMS says it’s followed all legal requirements surrounding student safety and sexual assault investigations.

Still, the lawsuits charge that CMS didn’t have a designated Title IX coordinator, whose job would have been, in part, to ensure sexual violence reports were investigated.

CMS, in response to questions from The Observer last week, says it established a Title IX coordinator office in 2016, which would have been after the incidents reported by Roe and Doe.

However, Stephanie McKinney, the director of the district’s Title IX office, told The Observer last week that because sexual assault and rape are considered major crimes in North Carolina, schools leaders are required to report cases to police.

In the Roe case, there’s no police report or record in the court filings to show that police interviewed the male student, who Roe’s lawyer says had a months-long history of harassing Roe. Leak says in court documents that Roe told him and the principal in 2014 she did not want to press charges.

In Doe’s case, the lawsuit says the initial incident report from the school resource officer said Doe and the 18-year-old accused of rape were skipping school together that day — and doesn’t mention her report of being abducted and assaulted. It would be days before the report was re-classified to show Doe had reported being sexually assaulted at school.

‘Journey to heal’

Roe told The Observer she had to leave school, seek therapy and resign from jobs as a result of the assault. Although Roe included her name this month in a petition, The Observer does not typically name sexual assault victims.

“I’m turning 22 this week,” Roe told The Observer through her Washington-based lawyer, Laura Dunn. “It’s affected so much of my life. I suffer severe PTSD and depression. It’s affected my academics, my social life, my work life. I’ve been in therapy for years and two residential treatment facilities.

“I’ve done a lot of work on my healing so things are looking better, but I still have nightmares and flashbacks, as well as bad days. It’s a long journey to heal.”

Doe, in her lawsuit, said she went through the same experiences.

Bosco and Leak refused to comment for this story. But both, in court records, deny the claims against them — chiefly that they were indifferent to or ignored the students’ reports of sexual violence.

A key part of the school’s response to the cases so far has been the claim that neither female student wanted to pursue a criminal case.

In the Roe case, the student’s lawyer says, Roe’s initial report to a school employee the day after the assault resulted in the male student’s parent being called and no report being made to police or any other CMS official. The lawsuits claim that multiple school personnel failed to give the female students relevant information about their rights under Title IX.

Last week, The Observer asked to interview Bosco. Instead of making him available, Patrick Smith, the CMS assistant superintendent of communications, sent a statement: “Creating and maintaining a safe learning environment is the highest priority for Myers Park High School and CMS leadership and staff.”

In the Doe case, Leak’s court filing says that the student initially did not say she was sexually assaulted. But the lawsuit says she was texting her friends from the woods, and they told the school resource officer she had been kidnapped and was being attacked. Doe, who was 17 at the time, was taken by her family to a local hospital to submit evidence for a forensic rape kit.

Students plan protest

Myers Park, the second largest high school in the state with more than 3,100 students, sits on a wooded, 61-acre campus. The woods, according to Roe and Doe’s lawsuits, were a known danger.

Their lawyer cites a 2015 student assembly held at Myers Park as emblematic of the atmosphere. There, according to court records, Bosco told students “some people go into the woods and don’t come back happy.” He also warned that school leaders “could not protect” students if they went into the woods, and told male students that “in these cases, you’re guilty until proven innocent because that’s just the price we pay for being men.”

In the Doe lawsuit, Dunn describes such statements as “classic rape myth” — the belief “that teenage girls are overly sensitive and dramatic, and thus likely to falsely accuse their male counterparts of sexual harassment and violence ...”

One student — Aiden Finnell, 16, a junior at Myers Park High who is helping organize an upcoming protest — says administrators still warn students during assemblies each year not to go into the woods.

“When it comes to fear, I think it’s more about how people are scared to report to admin about anything because of how they’ve mishandled so many things,” Finnell said. “There are a lot of different things that students and I want, the most common thing is accountability.”

CMS school board Chair Elyse Dashew says parents, students or employees with concerns should contact either school administrators or the school’s Title IX liaison.

“Every student and every employee deserves to be safe from harassment and discrimination,” she said in a recent statement to The Observer. “All school-based staff do annual mandatory training through our Title IX department on how to listen and respond to concerns. Administrators receive more intensive training about investigating and reporting complaints, and how to support students who share these complaints.”

CMS processes, policies

Doe says that at the time of the alleged attack in 2015, CMS “had no Title IX coordinator or other employee designated to address complaints of sexual harassment.” Before 2016, schools were required to follow the CMS Rights and Responsibilities Handbook and adhere to school board policy.

Title IX is a 1972 federal law that protects people from sex-based discrimination in schools or any other education program that receives federal money. Under Title IX, sexual discrimination includes harassment based on sex, which, in turn, includes sexual assault, stalking and dating and domestic violence.

Roe, in a petition started June 10 on Change.org, demands “justice for Myers Park rape and assault survivors” and wants clearer Title IX policies, mandatory reporting and training for all staff, personnel, students and parents on how to report sexual violence, among other demands.

Dashew and McKinney said the district already does what Roe’s petition is demanding. Each school in the district has a Title IX liaison responsible for investigating all claims of sexual misconduct or discrimination at school, she said.

McKinney said training on sexual harassment is conducted each year and includes topics such as how to identify and report sexual misconduct or harassment. Training is also offered to all students on an annual basis. Parents are allowed to opt their students out of this training.

Myers Park High safety

According to Roe’s lawsuit, during the time of her alleged attack, CMS had received several reports of male students committing sexual misconduct against minor female students in the woods that are a part of Myers Park High’s campus.

Since 2010, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has had 16 incident reports of forcible fondling or forcible rape filed from 2400 Colony Road — the school’s address. CMPD provided The Observer with copies of those police reports, half of which list the sexual violence as having occurred on school property.

For the others, it’s unclear where the alleged crimes occurred, but the documents show the victims reported the incident to someone at school.

According to data CMS provided The Observer, there were 11 student-reported sexual harassment claims made during the 2015-16 school year at Myers Park High. The number of sexual harassment claims has declined since: there were five claims from students during the 2016-17 school year; six during 2017-18; three during both the 2018-19 and 2019-2020 school years and none this past school year.

Doe’s case, with Leak listed as one of the reporting officers, is included in the reports. Roe’s case is not.

According to her lawsuit, Roe said Bosco discouraged her from making a “formal” report because if her alleged attacker was “found innocent” it would mean that Roe would be found responsible for having sex on campus and subject to disciplinary action. Bosco said later he was not trying to discourage the student from pursuing a criminal investigation.

Cases go unreported

Roe’s petition, which she started three days after the WBTV story aired, had drawn more than 3,000 signatures as of Monday. Some who have signed say they have been raped and sexually assaulted.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, says rape is the most under-reported crime.

“I do believe that in some cases the victim can be confused about the definition of sexual assault, and whether what happened to them meets the definition of sexual assault,” said Samantha Easters of Brave Step, a nonprofit in Concord. “I also believe that the victim can be confused about the definitions of consent and coercion.”

According to Know Your IX, a national resource listed under the district’s Title IX main page, 39% of survivors who reported sexual violence to their schools experienced “a substantial disruption in their educations” — a failure on the part of schools to fulfill their obligations under Title IX, advocates said.

“Our approach is you never are questioning what the experience is,” said Carmen Crape, a sexual trauma resource center advocate manager at Safe Alliance in Charlotte. “You’re truly listening, just listening. They have to know their options and know that you’re coming from a place of support and compassion.”

“You play a role in that person’s healing process and journey. It’s also all about community education.”

Resources to help

If you are in immediate danger, call 911.

If you are in need of assistance or need to speak with someone about sexual assault, call the 24/7 Greater Charlotte Hope Line at (980) 771-4673.

You can also call the Brave Step 24-hour emergency mental health line at (704) 361-5230.

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