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Federal discrimination complaint filed over alleged assault of girl at middle school

Published Feb. 20, 2015

Times Staff Writers

A couple who says their 12-year-old daughter was sexually assaulted during band class at John Hopkins Middle School last month filed a discrimination complaint against the school Thursday with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

The girl's mother, Annette Vedsegaard-Ross, wrote in the complaint that her daughter was targeted because she is female and that the attackers likely knew she suffers from a hearing disability. The Tampa Bay Times reported Jan. 30 that the family believes the Pinellas County School District and John Hopkins administrators attempted to minimize the assault to protect the school's reputation.

"We have no attorney. We have not filed any civil suit. We have not yet considered a civil suit," Vedsegaard-Ross said Thursday. "Our intent with going forward so publicly with this is to get the school to change."

Vedsegaard-Ross has alleged that John Hopkins principal Barry Brown refused to request to transfer the boy who allegedly molested her daughter, grinding against the girl while other students jeered. Assistant principal Robert Florio said he could suspend the boy for a maximum of only two weeks, according to the family. They said school resource officer Samuel Hiatt referred to the boy as a "jokester" and asked the girl to demonstrate how she was positioned when the alleged assault occurred.

The family said school officials vowed to try to move the boy, 12, out of the girl's classes and to provide her with an escort around hallways, but they never offered counseling services. The girl has since withdrawn from John Hopkins and enrolled in a private school in Gulfport. The Times does not identify victims of sexual assault.

School district officials have said John Hopkins administrators took appropriate action, but they have declined to provide details.

On Thursday, Pinellas Schools spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra said the district "will follow normal procedures" if the Department of Education requests information regarding the complaint.

The department informed Vedsegaard-Ross that its Office for Civil Rights in Atlanta will review the complaint.

The office can enforce five federal laws that prohibit discrimination, according to its website. Title 9 prohibits schools from discriminating on the basis of gender and defines sexual assault as a form of sex discrimination. Schools that accept federal funding and violate Title 9 may face sanctions.

Hillsborough County schools have been under federal supervision since 2011 and have instituted trainings among other steps to address sexual discrimination.

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com. Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com.