In John Hopkins sex assault case, school's handling in question

A school's response to a 12-year-old girl's sex assault violates Title IX, experts charge.
Published January 30 2015
Updated February 1 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — It was almost too heavy for her to carry, but she fell for the saxophone all the same, practicing in the band room at John Hopkins Middle School. She named her instrument "Reed." It made her feel calm. She would come in an hour early to play. She would stay long after the last bell.

Then one recent Monday, the 12-year-old girl hurried out of school. She was pale. Her face was drawn.

"Come on, get your coat on," her mother said, waiting in the car line.

The girl didn't move. She was looking at the sky.

"Let's go, get your coat on," her mother tried again. The girl blinked a few times.

Just before she burst into tears, she said, "I've had the worst day of my life."

She told her mother, then police, that a 12-year-old classmate had assaulted her in the small storage space off the band room. First she heard laughter. Then she saw his feet on either side of her. She was bent over as he rubbed up against her buttocks, thrusting. The other boys yelled:

"She's your ho!"

In the days that followed, school administrators characterized the attack as horseplay, failed to offer the girl counseling and refused to even attempt to transfer the boy to another school, her parents said.

They never mentioned to the parents that the federal Title IX law protects students who are victims of sexual assault, nor did they provide a Title IX liaison, as the law requires.

By creating a "hostile environment," and compromising the girl's safety, the school violated several parts of Title IX, experts and lawyers contacted by the Tampa Bay Times said.

Furthermore, a Times review of state records shows the Pinellas County School District has repeatedly failed to accurately report instances of crime and violence on John Hopkins' campus, as mandated by state law.

The school district said John Hopkins administrators took appropriate action but declined to comment about the specific handling of the case.

The girl's parents contend the school has tried to downplay their daughter's case to protect its reputation. John Hopkins is part of an aggressive push by the Pinellas County School District to draw students to struggling schools with new magnet programs.

But the girl who loved her saxophone only knew that something bad had happened, so she cried all the way home, not knowing there was so much more to come.

• • •

The next day, Jan. 13, the girl and her parents met with John Hopkins' school resource officer and the assistant principal for the magnet program, Robert Florio. The Tampa Bay Times does not usually identify victims of sexual assault. The girl's parents, Annette Vedsegaard-Ross, a sales representative, and Stephen Ross, a teacher at Madeira Beach Fundamental K-8, wanted to be named.

Officer Samuel Hiatt first instructed the girl to re-create the incident, recalled her parents, who later said they wished they had immediately objected. The officer told her to pretend an umbrella was her prized saxophone.

St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz said the officer asked the girl to show him the position she was in during the incident, but he did not ask her to re-enact what the boy did to her, rubbing against her with such force that it pushed her shirt up.

The girl did not want to bend over in the assistant principal's office. It had been humiliating the first time, she later said. Instead she sat on the floor.

Vedsegaard-Ross recalled that Hiatt referred to the boy as a "jokester" who "likes to get a laugh," and Florio said it would be hard to expel him because he had a clean record and had previously attended a Christian school. Florio said he would suspend the boy for two weeks and excuse the girl's absences.

He told the family that officials had interviewed 22 students. Two said they had seen the boy moving against the girl, while another two said they heard shrieks.

A call from the Times to the boy's mother was returned by her attorney, who declined to comment. St. Petersburg police investigated the case and recommended charges of lewd and lascivious molestation against the boy; the state attorney's office is considering whether to move forward.

Vedsegaard-Ross asked what would be done to protect her daughter. Florio vowed to try to move the boy out of the two classes he shared with the girl.

"What about in the hallways?" she asked. Florio said they could try to arrange an escort for the girl from class to class.

Vedsegaard-Ross requested a second meeting, this time with principal Barry Brown. She wanted to address another issue: Her daughter had said that earlier on the day of the incident, the boy had hit her in the face.

Vedsegaard-Ross said Brown told her she was "snowballing," or piling on accusations.

"He said, 'You know at this level, the 11-, 12- or 13-year-olds, you know there's a lot of horse—' and he stopped himself, and it was dead silent in the room," Vedsegaard-Ross said. She replied, "You're saying that my daughter's sexual assault is horseplay?"

Vedsegaard-Ross asked administrators to transfer the boy to another school, but Florio, she said, explained that such requests are rarely approved, even for "much worse" offenses. Brown refused to even try, she said.

Later, Brown left the room and Florio went to retrieve the girl's report card, which had just been released. Vedsegaard-Ross cried. Only the resource officer was left. She said he apologized for his comments at the first meeting.

The school district refused to allow Times reporters to interview Florio or Brown. When the Times sent an email that included the statements allegedly made by the administrators, such as calling the boy's actions "horseplay," spokeswoman Sharee Gilbert declined to discuss details about the incident or subsequent discipline, citing "student confidentiality."

Vedsegaard-Ross left the last meeting with the report card. For the first time, her daughter had gotten straight A's.

• • •

Pinellas defended its handling of the case: "As soon as the incident was reported, school officials contacted law enforcement," Gilbert wrote. As for the boy, "Appropriate disciplinary measures were taken."

But referring the situation to police and suspending the alleged perpetrator is, in most cases, not enough to satisfy Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

At the K-12 level, most people recognize Title IX as a protection against gender discrimination in high school athletics; if the boys have a lacrosse team, the girls should be able to have one, too. Title IX also defines sexual assault as a form of sex discrimination, and offers explicit and wide-ranging protections for student victims at the K-12 level. Schools can violate Title IX regardless of whether or not criminal charges are filed.

Experts said the school may have retraumatized the girl by treating the incident as horseplay, refusing to consider requests to separate her from the boy and failing to offer her counseling.

Nan Stein, senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, an expert witness on Title IX, called the suspension "a slap on the wrist."

"I see this as an egregious lack of knowledge of the law by the school administration," Stein said. "This is a group (that cornered her). This is a hostile environment."

Jennifer Dritt, executive director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, said an escort between classes might have helped the girl, but it also could have placed a "beacon" on her.

The federal government can force school districts that accept federal funding to change their practices if they're found in violation of Title IX. For instance, Hillsborough County's school system has been under federal supervision of its Title IX practices since 2011. It has had to train teachers to recognize and report sexual harassment, among other steps.

Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel for the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, said the John Hopkins case is "a very clear case of violation of Title IX. There's a lot more they could have done. There are very serious messages you can send to the school, that send the message 'we do not tolerate this behavior.' You could say, 'I don't care where you land, but I want you out of this school. This behavior is inappropriate. If you engage in this behavior you will face the severest of sanctions.'

"But it's not like that. I wish it was like that."

The girl stopped going to school. She didn't want to do much of anything. Instead she lay in bed with her toothless crested gecko, Mocha, whose cinnamon-colored back feels like velvet. None of her friends texted to ask if she was okay. "I feel like no one really cares about me," she said.

The girl was the first saxophonist in her class to learn an A note. She was set to perform at an upcoming county competition. She was told no sixth-grader had ever played at that level.

"I didn't want that to be taken away from me," she said quietly, "but this happened."

• • •

When this happens, schools in Florida are required to report it through the School Environment Safety Incident Reporting system. Districts must report 26 types of incidents, ranging from fighting and drug use to arson and assault. Incidents do not need to rise to the level of an arrest to be reported.

But a review of arrest data and other documents shows that John Hopkins has for years failed to report instances of assault on campus.

There were 52 arrests at John Hopkins in the 2011-12 school year, according to St. Petersburg police records. In April of that year, a 12-year-old girl was held down by two classmates in the gym as they groped under her shirt. The boys later faced a charge of lewd and lascivious molestation.

State records obtained by the Times show that, in the same school year, Pinellas reported only a single incident — a bullying case —at John Hopkins to the state under SESIR,

In the 2012-13 school year, the latest for which SESIR records are available, John Hopkins is not listed at all. The district did not submit a report for the school, despite 39 arrests that year.

Gilbert, the schools spokeswoman, acknowledged discrepancies: "We have been aware of reporting errors and have been working with school staff throughout the district to improve data collection."

Pressed for how "errors" came about, fellow Pinellas spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra said the district has recently made changes to its student database to make SESIR reporting automatic.

• • •

The girl's mother said she thinks administrators downplayed the assault because they were worried about damaging the school's reputation.

The girl was not just a magnet student; her family was also part of promotional efforts to bring more children to John Hopkins, an F school known for behavior problems. The school in recent years struggled to fill its classrooms: This year, 806 students attend the school built for 1,520.

Last fall, district officials launched an aggressive campaign to build more magnets and promote existing programs at its schools, including John Hopkins. They're using a federal grant to add a much-hyped pre-International Baccalaureate program at the middle school this fall.

The girl's mother said that at 8 a.m., once a month, parents would gather in Florio's office and talk about ways to win more positive reviews and improve the school's public face. These meetings were called "Coffee and Conversation." Vedsegaard-Ross did her part by handing out magnet program pamphlets at the Largo Cultural Center.

"They're trying to keep all the negative publicity down," she said, referring to the assault. ". . . They wanted us to minimize this, to shut up by saying 'this is nothing.' "

Bruno, the victim rights lawyer, compared John Hopkins to universities that downplay assault to protect their reputations and admissions figures.

"This mom is spot-on. If they're looking to establish a reputation, then any anti-reputational things will really hurt them," she said. "They'll probably do everything they can to keep it under the radar."

In other cases, Pinellas principals — including Brown — decided to notify the school community.

Before the magnet push, when the other 12-year-old was groped at John Hopkins in 2012, Brown sent a message out to parents. At Dixie Hollins High School, the principal notified teachers and parents after a student reported being raped on campus Jan. 12, the same day Vedsegaard-Ross' daughter was assaulted at John Hopkins.

But her teachers were not told of the assault, even though she was missing school, according to responses they sent to a Jan. 16 email from Vedsegaard-Ross.

One email, from her math teacher, Christine Behring, read: "I had not heard of the incident, and did wonder why (your daughter) was out all week without hearing from anyone."

Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego and School Board Chairwoman Linda Lerner said they also had not been told about the incident when approached by a Times reporter on Jan. 20.

• • •

After missing almost two weeks of school, the girl withdrew from John Hopkins. She would miss her teachers, and her friends. But most of all, she would miss Reed, her saxophone. The stamp on its case read "John Hopkins Middle School." She had to return it.

She was starting to get angry, about all of it. She thought about the boy, getting to go back to John Hopkins, getting to play music with his friends. She thought about how he was a fellow sax player. Why wouldn't he have treated her better?

He made her feel like he could control her, she said. He made her feel so bad about herself.

Her parents eventually found a small private school where they say everyone is nice to the girl, often complimenting her T-shirts. And because she fell so hard for the saxophone, and because of what happened to take that sax away, her parents are now paying for a rental and private lessons. She practices alone in her room morning and night.

The new sax is a tenor, heavier than her alto. It's also lower and deeper, and the high notes are harder to play. She goes for the F-flat, but she can't yet get her mouth and fingers in the right place quickly enough.

The note comes out wrong. Her whole body shakes.

Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected]