Saturday, January 20, 2018
Education

Mom: Pinellas school mishandled sexual assault investigation

CLEARWATER — The mother got the call at work from her 8-year-old's school: We think an older student exposed himself to your son.

The principal and school resource officer, she said, met her at the school and told her the situation actually might be more serious. There may have been inappropriate contact. They needed to interview her son.

She listened as her blue-eyed boy, who is autistic, described to the adults what happened to him in a bathroom at Clearwater's Calvin A. Hunsinger School: The big kid told me to follow him inside and pull down my pants.

The mother vomited into a trash can.

• • •

The 40-year-old mother of two believes her son was raped by a 14-year-old student in a bathroom at Calvin A. Hunsinger on Feb. 8.

But she has no proof because school officials talked her out of getting him examined by a doctor, she said.

She told them she wanted her son checked at a hospital, but she says school resource officer Joseph TenBieg seemed firmly against the idea.

"The officer said, 'It'll traumatize him,' " she said Thursday in an interview at her Pinellas Park home. " 'Don't take him to a hospital. It'll scare him. It'll be better to look at him here.' "

Shocked and scared, she said she took the officer's advice. With TenBieg standing by, she checked her son's body and looked for blood in his underwear. She and the officer didn't find signs of trauma, she said, so she took her boy home.

The school didn't offer counseling, didn't suggest following up with a pediatrician, she said. Now that she has had time to think about it, she's outraged.

"I trusted them," she said. "We'd never been in that position before, and I thought these people were supposed to help me through this and have my son's best interests in mind."

But, a week later, after the mother read a "Victim's Rights" pamphlet at the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, she wondered: Did the school try to hide a sexual battery?

A student was arrested that day on a charge of lewd and lascivious molestation, a second-degree felony. The investigation and arrest were carried out by the Pinellas County schools campus police, district spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra said. The Clearwater Police Department was not called.

The Times is not naming the mother to protect her son's identity.

The Pinellas County School District, including Hunsinger principal Stephanie Bessette and SRO TenBieg, a former Clearwater police sergeant, wouldn't comment on most of the mother's claims because the case is still under investigation and because the mother is considering legal action against the school district.

• • •

Here's how her son explains what happened to him, she told the Times:

He was in an outside gardening area at Calvin Hunsinger, a special Pinellas public school that serves emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children in grades K-12.

An older boy told him to come into a bathroom and pull down his pants and then stood behind him. "It won't hurt," the 8-year-old recalls the teenager saying.

But it did hurt, he told his mother.

Looking for the 8-year-old, a teacher found the boys in the bathroom. According to the mother, the teacher told the principal and school resource officer that she didn't believe a sexual battery was completed.

Parra would not comment on how the older boy was able to lure the younger one into the bathroom. Students at the school are supposed to be in separate areas, divided by elementary, middle and high school sections. Classrooms and hallways are supposed to be monitored.

The case was referred to the State Attorney's Office, where a decision has not yet been made whether to pursue the charge against the 14-year-old.

Beyond calling campus police, the Pinellas school district has no specific policies regarding how to handle student-on-student sexual assaults on school property, Parra said.

Neither do Hillsborough County schools, said spokesman Stephen Hegarty. A school resource officer is generally the first responder to suspected crimes on campuses, he said.

But the 8-year-old's mother wants to know: Should Hunsinger's school resource officer have advised against a forensic exam, or rape kit, for her son?

Laura Eastman, a child protection specialist at the Suncoast Center in Pinellas Park, a rape crisis center, said that if a child describes something consistent with rape, conducting an exam is often the only way to supply concrete evidence to the investigating authorities.

"I don't believe it's traumatizing. The professionals are trained to explain each step to children," she said. "It's a fairly common response for parents to believe the process is traumatizing. But after we talk to them, they usually understand why it's important."

Sometimes, Eastman said, a rape doesn't leave visible marks on a victim. And at Suncoast Center, medical doctors team with social workers to test for what the eye may miss: sexually transmitted diseases and an assailant's DNA.

• • •

Hunsinger is now reviewing its security practices, Parra said, but she would not elaborate on what specifically the school is investigating. Last week, the Times reported that a cell phone video of a 14-year-old girl being beaten on the Calvin Hunsinger campus was uploaded to Facebook.

Since the Pinellas Park 8-year-old was assaulted, his mother said, he has been prone to angry outbursts, clings to her and isn't sleeping well. But feeling she had no choice, she put him back at Hunsinger on Feb. 11.

"When I drove him back, he started kicking and screaming and saying, 'No, mommy! No! The kids are mean there, mommy!' " she said. "It breaks my heart."

The district would not say if the student who was charged with molestation will return to Hunsinger.

"But generally speaking, if there is a need to move a student, the district will move a student," Parra said.

The mother said she is trying to find a new school for her son, but the process is slow. He has cycled through six Pinellas elementary schools, she said, each ill-equipped to handle a child with autism, attention deficit disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.

"What else can I do?" said the mother, who works in human resources at a local company. "If I take him out and home school him, I'll have to quit my job. Then I can't pay the bills, and we're homeless."

She wonders if the incident in the bathroom will affect her son for life, if other kids will find out and treat him differently, if his suspected attacker will evade punishment because she was persuaded not to take him for a medical exam that day.

"I just don't understand," she said, "how this happened to my sweet, sweet boy."

Danielle Paquette can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4224.

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