The children were confused, scared and hurt. In their own words, they did their best to convey what other students had done to them in the school restroom, the gym and the bus. What their families learned left them shaken and set up an unexpected, adversarial relationship with their school districts.
Student-on-student sexual assaults rise significantly during middle-school years, an Associated Press analysis of federal crime data found. But even as early as kindergarten and first grade, children can be at risk: About 5 percent of all sexual attacks reported on school property in a recent two-year period happened to 5 and 6 year olds, according to the AP analysis.
Little boys made up about 41 percent of the youngest victims — significantly higher than at other times in their school years. Among teens, boys comprised only about 10 percent of reported victims.
Overall, the data showed children were almost always violated by someone their own age. Unwanted fondling was the most common type of assault; about 20 percent of the victims were subjected to rape, sodomy or other form of penetration.
Most sexual assaults of children by other children happened at a private residence, but schools were the second-most common location, representing about 9 percent of the total incidents.
“The question for schools is: How do we prevent it, how can we address it, and how can we support our students who may be survivors?” said Fatima Goss Graves, chief executive-elect of the National Women’s Law Center, which won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1999 that established schools’ responsibilities for responding to peer-on-peer sexual assault.
AP’s analysis was based on the most recent two years of available data from the National Incident-Based Reporting System, which contains crime reports from about a third of the nation’s law enforcement agencies. Some of the nation’s largest cities are not represented in the voluntary reporting program, however, and the data does not reveal the outcome of cases.
Here is a closer look at some of the littlest victims AP found:
Allentown School District
Allentown, Pennsylvania, 2003-2004, 2013
After the first-grader came home from Jefferson Elementary School in 2013 and told his mother that his “pee-pee hurt,” she found him red, swollen and bloody. While washing his hands at a bathroom sink, he said, an older student had pulled down his pants, grabbed his penis and punched him in the face. The student warned, “If you tell, I’m going to do this again,” court records show. The district said it investigated and ultimately disputed the allegation, but paid a settlement to end the family’s lawsuit. Just months before that boy’s case, the district had settled a U.S. Justice Department investigation into similar incidents at another Allentown school. Justice accused the district of knowing a fifth-grade boy was allegedly sexually assaulting younger students in bathrooms at Central Elementary in 2003 and 2004, and failing to take enough action — or, in some cases, any action — to prevent it. The families of three first-grade boys came forward in a lawsuit against the district in 2006, and those allegations eventually spurred Justice to join the case. In all, seven boys said they were victimized. The district denied all the allegations, but settled the lawsuit in 2012 and agreed to court-enforced safety improvements. Since then, a judge has twice agreed to Justice requests to extend oversight of the district after the department cited unchanged policies, including failures to provide staff and student training. The district, which remains under monitoring until August, says it is making “good-faith attempts to remedy every deficiency.”
Gwinnett County Public Schools
Suwanee, Georgia, 2016
The 5-year-old cried in his mother’s car after school, saying he didn’t want to be friends with a classmate anymore. He later confided to his stepsister what he’d been too scared to tell anyone else: A fellow kindergartner at Level Creek Elementary School had threatened to punch him in the face if he didn’t pull down his pants, according to a police report filed by the boy’s family. Frightened, the boy said he did as he was told and his classmate performed oral sex on him. The boy’s parents contacted Suwanee police, who interviewed the boy and his family but then forwarded the case to school district police, saying they didn’t have jurisdiction. A school resource officer later told the mother that “due to the ages of the involved there are no criminal charges,” according to a district police supervisor’s email. The supervisor said the mother understood and did not want her son interviewed. A day later, after inquiries from a local reporter, the district issued a public statement saying the boy had been “inappropriately touched” but that his parents “indicated they did not want to pursue prosecution.” The parents disputed that in a local TV interview and said they saw school security footage that supported their son’s account. The district, which disagreed about the footage, said it didn’t have “sufficient corroborating evidence to warrant further action in the absence of an interview of the alleged victim.” The investigation remains open.
Monroe County Schools
Peterstown, West Virginia, 2016
The 6-year-old stepped off the school bus on a cold January day with his coat open. A relative waiting to pick him up offered to fasten it. Instead, the kindergartener wanted help zipping and buttoning his pants, explaining that an older student had been playing a “doctor” game on him. In an interview with a child-abuse examiner, the boy said he had been forced into oral sex and fondled several times by the older student, then age 16. Police reviewed the bus’s surveillance camera footage and corroborated at least one sexual assault against the boy, along with other suspicious behavior by the other student, according to his family’s lawsuit. The district did not contest that in its legal response or that another child had provided a statement describing the older student’s conduct. Younger and older bus riders were supposed to sit separately, but the driver failed to enforce that policy, the Monroe County district acknowledged. The student was expelled a year later, prosecuted as a juvenile and sentenced to a rehabilitation center, according to the family’s suit. He had a disciplinary history in Monroe County and another district, including a suspension for “indecent behavior.” Monroe County knew about that record and that its buses were having safety problems. According to a 2013 superintendent’s memo, there had been two allegations of “inappropriate sexual touching” of elementary students and three students were expelled for “inappropriate sexual behavior.” The memo said the superintendent told the transportation department to create seating charts for buses and keep boys and girls from each other “to reduce the opportunity for sexual contact.”
San Diego Unified School District
San Diego, California, 2013-2014
The 5-year-old kindergartener came home from Green Elementary school in May 2013 and told his parents about a “gross thing” that had happened in the school bathroom: A classmate had pulled down his pants, sucked his penis and demanded the boy reciprocate. The boy’s parents alerted the principal, who later testified that he reported the incident to child protective services. But when they followed up with him before the start of the next school year, the principal acted as if he didn’t know what they were talking about, according to a letter from the parents’ attorney. The school district, on behalf of the principal, declined AP’s requests for comment. A year later, an internal investigator was assigned to the case and eventually reported finding other school incidents of student-on-student sex assault, according to district records. The boy’s case against the school district for negligence and violating Title IX ended with a $105,000 settlement, terms of which were kept confidential. In May 2014, a 7-year-old first-grader at the same school told her mother, LaToya Johnson, that three older girls had touched her vagina in a bathroom stall. The girl has vocal cord paralysis and couldn’t scream for help, her mother said. Johnson, who spoke to AP publicly in hopes of bringing about change, later sued the school district and a proposed settlement agreement is pending. A U.S. Education Department investigation, triggered by the first case, resulted in the district agreeing to create guidelines for elementary school principals on how to handle students’ sexual harassment and assault complaints.
Lincoln County School District
Newport, Oregon, 2009-2010
For months, the parents of five first-grade students at Sam Case Elementary attributed their children’s behavioral problems to the recent merger of two schools. One mother told AP her son had nightmares and soiled his pants. A second child protested daily, “I don’t want to go to school!” Only later, the child’s mother said, did she learn that her 6-year-old daughter had been groped in the classroom reading corner and threatened with death if she told anyone. State records show that another parent complained his son had witnessed a 6-year-old exposing himself on a school bus. School officials were first alerted in fall 2009 to a possible problem with the boy accused in both incidents when his family sought help in dealing with “problems at home,” including bed-wetting. The principal and staff members met later with the boy’s parents to discuss “inappropriate touching of other students,” state records show. But no one from the school notified the state’s child welfare office, law enforcement or any of the other children’s parents. The parents of the five alleged victims, however, had pieced together their children’s shared experiences and, in March 2010, one of them notified police. In April 2011, the principal and two teachers pleaded no contest to failure to report child abuse and were fined $648, court records show. The families later sued the district and settled in 2014 for $250,000. Three of the five children never returned to the school; one mother said her son remains in therapy seven years later and another mother told AP her child is “scared to death of the world.” The accused boy remained at the school.
If you have a tip, comment or story to share about student-on-student sexual assault at K-12 schools, please email: schoolhousesexassaultap.org.