TAMPA — The Walker Middle School rape case represents everything a parent fears.
A child who is bullied and abused but says nothing. Witnesses who keep the attacks secret. Perpetrators who seem to everyone to be good kids.
The situation is enough to scare the living daylights out of parents who believe themselves to be perceptive, in-touch and protective.
"As a parent," says April Griffin, a Hillsborough School Board member and mother of two teenage boys, "you want to believe you have that relationship with your child where he comes to you and talks to you."
Griffin knows first-hand that despite a parent's efforts, teens keep many things to themselves.
It wasn't until after one of her sons was beaten at school that she found out he'd been the victim of ongoing bullying.
"I felt horrible," she said. "They really want to believe they can handle the situation their own way."
Experts say parents should not take for granted their children will tell them when bad things happen.
At Walker, the news only came out after a coach heard the victim snap during an argument with the suspects, saying, "I'm tired of them getting on me."
Now four teens face four counts of sexual battery, accused of raping the 13-year-old with a broom handle and hockey stick.
Juliana Menke, a mental health counselor who works in child abuse prevention at Help A Child in Pinellas Park, said that especially when it comes to bullying, victims often develop a pattern of "freezing" — doing nothing, saying nothing.
Add in the privacy and independence issues that often develop through the adolescent and teen years and the result is a protective parent's nightmare.
Taylor Cochran, a graduating senior at Tampa's King High School, said she estimates parents know about 50 to 60 percent of what's really happening in teens' lives.
"It's just hard to explain to your parents how much goes on in that day," the 17-year-old said.
Teens often don't feel their parents understand their pressures, she said. Cochran also said that besides the natural pattern of human development, the simple logistics of long hours at school mean kids shift their support group from their parents to the peers.
"I think they'd be surprised," she said of what adults know.
Criss McConnell of Tampa said she always believed she and her daughter had a strong bond.
When her now 17-year-old daughter began questioning her sexuality at age 13, the two of them talked about it. And when problems arose at school, they discussed that, too.
But her daughter didn't tell her until four years later how bad the bullying had become — or the fact that, as a seventh grader, the abuse made her seriously contemplate suicide.
"She did not tell me because she was afraid I would have removed her from the school," McConnell said.
Kids frequently keep their victimization a secret on the premise that they should simply learn to deal with it. That, or they perceive that they stand to lose something if they open up.
In the Walker case, it appears the victim believed that if he complained about the bullying, he might be banned from playing flag football.
"There are kids for whom that (valuable thing) matters to them to the exclusion of all else," Menke said.
Another reason victims are likely to remain silent, according to Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational psychology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is their already existing sense of isolation. "They feel like they have no one to talk to, no escape," she said.
Social dynamics likely played a powerful role in whatever happened at Walker Middle School, she said.
Other children will follow a dominant child's lead, and find ways to justify behavior that others would find repugnant, such as minimizing the victim's objections.
"You thought the victim was laughing because that's what you did in your head to rationalize the behavior," Espelage said. "They're separating themselves from the situation, objectifying the victim, and the victim is 'having fun.' "
Menke's advice to parents is multifold:
Try to build lines of communication early. Talk with them about what makes a good friend. Try not to communicate shame or embarrassment when talking about sexuality so that if the day ever arises when the child needs to talk with you about something that happened to them, they will be less likely to shy away. Instead of asking, "Has this ever happened to you?," Menke said, communicate to the child your motivation for asking about their well-being.
"Parents," she said, "can say something like, 'You and I are in this together. My goal is to make sure you make it to adulthood safe and healthy.' "
Finally, she said, work with your kid's school to ensure it has an effective antibullying program.
Taylor, the 17-year-old, has her own advice for parents. "Try to get involved in something your kid is involved in," she said.
Rather than staging a formal Q&A at the end of every school day, she said, meet your teen on their turf and allow communication to evolve naturally.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at [email protected] and (813) 226-3383