Did This School Cover Up Sexual Assault Because The Perpetrators Were Related To Board Members?

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"Did This School Cover Up Sexual Assault Because The Perpetrators Were Related To Board Members?"

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Two West Virginia boys repeatedly sexually assaulted girls at their school, but school administrators helped them to cover up the assault by punishing their victims and obstructing a law enforcement investigation, according to an injunction filed this week in a West Virginia court by the state’s Attorney General and its Human Rights Commission. Both boys are relatives of members of the school board there.

“Multiple” girls at Burch Middle School in Mingo County were “subjected to repeated incidents of sexual abuse and/or sexual assault by two fellow male students,” the injunction alleges, “and then threatened with discipline and/or retaliated against by members of the Burch Middle School administration when each pursued punishment for the offenders.” The assaults, which happened in school, on field trips, and on the bus, started in 2012, but the latest assault was just over two weeks ago, on April 21.

Five adults at the school, along with the entire Mingo County Board of Education, are part of the Attorney General’s complaint. They include the Principal, Vice Principal, Superintendent, athletic coach, and even the guidance counselor. The two boys’ parents are also both part of the complaint, though none are named to protect the identities of the boys, who now in eighth grade and are under 18.

At least three girls told the school’s guidance counselor about the abuse in May of last year. But the complaint alleges that the girls’ stories were never taken seriously.

In one case, when a mother found out her daughter had been assaulted, she had to demand phone numbers for the principal, Jada Hunter, and then demanded a meeting. In a meeting with the fathers of the two boys, she found that both Hunter and the athletic coach (who came to the meeting) wanted to make the issue go away. The coach simply told the mother that since there were no witnesses, they couldn’t do anything about it, the complaint alleges. He then said that if the girl kept complaining, she would face disciplinary action. Hunter agreed. The Attorney General’s complaint also found that statements the daughter had been asked to write about what happened to her, were treated without care: One went missing, the other was apparently shared with a father of one of the boys, and with the relative who worked within the school system.

The case of another victim, who says she was forcibly penetrated by one of the boys, was never investigated by law enforcement either. The only discipline in either case doled out by the school were two days of suspension and denying the boys an ice cream break during a school event.

When the girls’ stories eventually made their way to the police and the girls gave testimony on what had happened to them, the complaint says that they faced retaliation: One girl was given two infractions — one for “bullying” because she blocked a girl on Facebook, another for “insubordination.” The girl, an eighth grader, was also removed from her class and placed in a lower-level course with seventh graders. The school also at one point refused to let officers onto the premises to get testimony from a third victim.

The boys were well aware of their immunity from punishment, according to the complaint. One victim alleges that after a particular incident where she threatened to report the boys, one said to the other, “don’t worry, [your relative] will take care of us.”

The details of the case differs, of course, but what happened in the Mingo County school system is a disturbing reminder of the frequent cover-ups of sexual assault that favor perpetrators at the expense of victims. That was also the case in Steubenville, Ohio, where heralded football players were given the benefit of the doubt despite video evidence that they had raped a girl there. Advocates also thought it was at play in the Maryville rape case, where many blamed the boy’s connection to a state-level politician as the reason he was never charged.

Sexual violence has become a normal part of young women’s lives — and one to which they’ve become accustomed. And the perception — and reality — that their assaults won’t be taken seriously makes victims doubt whether they should come forward at all.

While the assaults were happening at Burch Middle School, parents of one of the victims noticed that their daughter was acting “withdrawn” and “anxious,” according to the complaint. She “suffered crying spells,” they said, and would respond to concerned questions from her parents by saying, “nobody understands” or “it doesn’t matter.”

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