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A Times Editorial

Where were adults at Walker Middle?

Four Tampa teenagers are answering criminal charges that they repeatedly raped a 13-year-old schoolmate on campus grounds. But there is another question that needs to be answered: Where were the adults at Walker Middle School while this boy was allegedly pinned down and raped with a hockey stick and broom handle in the school locker room four times in two months?

As horrific as these allegations are, the idea that this was not one isolated event but a series of planned attacks heightens concerns about a systemic failure to provide reasonable supervision.

Prosecutors have brought adult charges of four counts of sexual battery against each of the four defendants, whose ages range from 14 to 15. Prosecutors said Wednesday the victim endured months of abuse and intimidation — all apparently in silence. Students would later tell investigators they heard the victim scream during one attack, but neither the victim nor the witnesses informed anyone in authority. The allegations came to light only after the victim and one of the accused fought during a flag football game.

The Hillsborough County School District has no specific policy requiring staff to monitor the locker rooms, a spokesman said Thursday. The district does have an overall responsibility to supervise students on campus. It also has antibullying policies in place that seek to inform school authorities and parents when a child is harassed.

Those policies are not good enough. Staff should reasonably monitor every facility on campuses that holds large groups of students. That does not necessarily mean every baseball dugout, restroom or stairwell. But common sense says locker rooms and the like are easy places for students to gang up on others.

The school district said it will use the summer recess to train teachers and staff to be "hypervigilant" to signs of bullying. It also intends to review the rape complaint to determine whether it needs to improve its campus security or reporting procedures.

The school district has a real problem if its staff members throughout the county are as out of touch as they reportedly were at Walker. It is incredible that it took weeks for the allegations to surface. It is especially troubling that some students reported hearing the victim scream and yet none of the boy's schoolmates came forward to protect him. Middle school students may not quickly confide in teachers, but they talk plenty among themselves. The problem here goes beyond the effectiveness of anti-bullying policies. The school district and parents need to challenge the culture among students that equates standing up to snitching.

The district also faltered by waiting to review the conduct of its staff until law enforcement completed its criminal probe. It lost valuable time. The district would not have interfered with the criminal probe by merely moving sooner to investigate how its staff handled the rape complaint. Incidents are going to happen on school campuses in Hillsborough and elsewhere, but parents need a higher comfort level that their children are safe and well-supervised on campus.

What is striking about the allegation is not only the savagery of the crime but that the opportunity to commit it apparently occurred repeatedly. This should be a warning to Hillsborough and other school districts to review their supervision policies and make sure their campuses are well-monitored.

Where were adults at Walker Middle? 06/04/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 4, 2009 7:03pm]
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