ST. PETERSBURG — Sex crimes are appalling enough. When an allegation erupts in the fishbowl of high school, the ugliness is magnified.
Last month, a 15-year-old girl at Dixie Hollins High accused an 18-year-old football player of sexually assaulting her on a school bus while two others stood lookout.
Rumors flew through the halls of the school. Students spread the name of the girl, despite laws prohibiting authorities from releasing her identity. They circulated a petition saying she was promiscuous and a willing participant. Some even blamed her for ruining the lives of the football players, who are well known and liked by their peers.
"I know every kid who was charged in that," said David Blanck, an 18-year-old senior who questioned the truth of the girl's story. "Everyone's been saying she's a really big sleep-around person and she's trying to get revenge."
Authorities say they have video evidence and a strong case against the young men. So why were students so quick to turn against the girl?
"This particular age of adult can be unbelievably catty and mean-spirited when it comes to these issues," said Steve Crawford, a Tampa lawyer who has represented more than half a dozen high school-age sex assault victims. "It's a very tough lesson for everybody to learn."
Authorities say Branden Allen, 18, forced his way onto an empty school bus May 6. The freshman girl followed, thinking it was time to board. Two boys got on and stood lookout while Allen digitally penetrated the girl, authorities said.
The incident was caught with video and audio on the bus surveillance camera. The Sheriff's Office says it's clear the girl is resisting and she didn't know the young men. Even if it were consensual, the law forbids an 18-year-old from having sexual relations with a minor under 16.
Allen was charged with sexual battery and false imprisonment and suspended from school. Jacolbi Williams, 15, and Jermeil Douse, 16, were charged with principal to those charges.
The evidence seems convincing to law enforcement. But just like adults, teens sometimes blame victims to satisfy their belief that the world is a fair place. They don't want to believe that bad things happen to good people. They stick to their opinions, unfazed even by new information.
But psychologists say the adolescent brain makes teenagers a class of their own. As they develop a sense of identity, teens try on behavior that they think will make them popular. They're especially swayed by reputation and follow impulse without thinking into the future.
"Adolescence is full of poor judgment because of where their brain is, but that does not excuse the behavior that occurs," said Charisse Nixon, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania State University and director of research at the Ophelia Project, an organization that campaigns against social aggression.
Nixon said the community could use the sex assault case to talk about inappropriate behavior and how students can speak out against it.
But among those keeping silent is the school. The principal contacted parents and staff members with a recording that announced the incident and assured the safety of students.
Other than that, there has been no communication. Pinellas County schools spokeswoman Andrea Zahn said it would be inappropriate for the administration to talk about a matter that's under investigation.
Even though schools try to stay out of it, high-profile sex cases have happened before. In 2004, four young men from Tampa's Plant High School pleaded no contest to felony battery after a 14-year-old girl accused them of sexually assaulting her. The boys were popular athletes; the girl faced mental health problems. Friends of both sides spread their version of events.
In 2001, two 16-year-old students at St. Petersburg High were accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old in the bathroom. The school handled it by asking teachers to discuss sexual harassment and take questions from students.
In the Dixie Hollins case, even the defense attorney for the 18-year-old says he knows of no state evidence that suggests any of the rumors flying about the girl are true.
"You can't stop someone from making up the (rumors) and having a snowball effect," said Paul Kimsey, the attorney for the victim's family. "But the facts are the facts, and the video and the audio tape show the facts in this case."
The state's rape shield law prohibits the discussion of a victim's sexual history in court. Advocates for the law hoped it would stop the second humiliation of a trial and encourage the reporting of sex crimes, said Charles Rose, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law.
But the law doesn't protect victims in the court of public opinion. The uncertainty of adolescence also could influence the girl, who will finish out the year at home and transfer to a different high school next year. Nixon, of the Ophelia Project, said research has shown that emotional aggression can be just as damaging as physical violence.
Crawford, a former federal prosecutor, said the shame associated with sexual crimes causes the vast majority of cases to end up in plea deals to avoid trial. Even confident adult women struggle when they choose to report crimes and follow them through court.
"I always admire those who can," Crawford said. "That's tough for a 15-year-old girl."
Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or firstname.lastname@example.org.