Several students at Blake High School accuse a teacher of sexually inappropriate behavior — and the Hillsborough School district drags its feet. A teenage boy warns classmates about a student who repeatedly sexually harassed others — and the district expels the boy who raised the red flag. Another student says she was raped on campus — and she gets suspended. Time and again the adults in charge failed to take the students’ complaints seriously, a devastating Times investigation found. Instead, they targeted the whistleblowers, deflected blame and seemingly forgot that they aren’t supposed to turn high school into an even scarier place.
The Times’ Bethany Barnes spent months digging into what was happening at Blake, which sits on the Hillsborough River near downtown Tampa. What she found should frighten any parent of high school age kids. Twenty-two current and former Blake students described feeling that no one would protect them at the school. Several told the Times that they made complaints, but school officials didn’t keep them informed about what was happening with the investigations, or even whether their complaint was being investigated at all. One girl who said she was sexually harassed by a fellow student concluded that inappropriate sexual behavior wouldn’t be punished but reporting it would. Who could blame her, given several of the examples the Times unearthed?
One boy grew inpatient that the school wouldn’t adequately investigate a report he made about a student sexually harassing his friend. He posted the name of the accused student to Instagram with details about what had happened. He later found out that three other girls said the student had harassed them, too. The school suspended the boy — the whistleblower — for cyberbullying. As he was being punished, he met with a deputy. “He said they could be lying,” the boy wrote, referring to the four girls. “The deputy said that.”
The following year, feeling as if the district still hadn’t done anything to stop the harasser, the boy used Apple’s AirDrop feature to warn everyone in the area with an iPhone about the student. For that, the boy was expelled. The boy admits he could have handled the situation better, but his actions illustrate the desperation and anxiety that arose from the school’s ham-handed response to the harassment allegations.
It gets worse. In her junior year at Blake, a girl said a student raped her in the hallway as she was working on an art project. The school concluded the girl — who thinks she may be on the autism spectrum — willingly had sex on campus and suspended her and the boy. The girl’s mother told the Times that she felt school officials weren’t listening and were trying to cover it up. Two years later, the same boy, who had turned 18 years old, was accused of raping a 14-year-old girl with Asperger syndrome. He was charged under the state’s statutory rape law and pleaded guilty to felony battery with probation that included sex offender treatment. The school suspended the 14-year-old girl. That’s right: The school suspended the victim of a sex crime.
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In another case, students said they complained about a male teacher acting inappropriately. For a story that ran in June, a district spokesperson told the Times that there were no complaints against the teacher. But more recently, when the Times kept pressing, chief of communications Tanya Arja revealed that the teacher was counseled about inappropriate comments. The mistake, if that’s what it was, conveniently undermined the students’ allegations, at least until the Times reporting proved otherwise. Or maybe the school district is so disorganized that it can’t tell which teachers it has disciplined. Either way, it’s another example of how students felt thwarted by the people tasked with protecting them.
Meanwhile, the feds can’t rouse themselves to say whether they are paying attention. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has supposedly monitored Hillsborough since 2011, when an inquiry concluded that the district actively retaliated against a student who reported sexual abuse. But since June, authorities at the Office of Civil Rights repeatedly ignored requests to talk to the Times about its oversight and have refused to release records that would show its involvement in the Hillsborough district. The lack of cooperation hardly inspires confidence that the office has the best interests of students at heart.
If they haven’t already, the feds should awaken from their apparent slumber and take a hard look at how Hillsborough is treating sexual misconduct allegations. Hillsborough officials should do the same. Don’t run for the bunkers. Aim for as much transparency as possible. Own it and fix it. And those same local officials should say they’re sorry to those brave Blake students who courageously stepped forward to report sexual misconduct. Will that happen? Probably not, but it’s the least the students deserve. School should be a safe place, not a scary one.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.