Parents left in dark after reported rape at high school

Advocate file photo by Bill Feig -- The halls of Woodlawn High School. Show caption
Advocate file photo by Bill Feig -- The halls of Woodlawn High School.

Students, parents not told of rape allegation

Woodlawn High School Principal Daniel B. Edwards on Tuesday defended his decision to keep parents in the dark this semester about a 14-year-old student who told authorities she was sexually assaulted inside a bathroom stall on campus.

School leaders alerted the parents of the students involved, but others remained unaware of the criminal investigation even after detectives concluded they had probable cause to make two felony arrests.

A 16-year-old boy was booked with forcible rape two weeks after the Oct. 3 incident, and East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies took out an additional warrant last week for another teen accused of standing watch outside the bathroom.

School officials pointed to the sensitivity of the case and the foremost importance of shielding the victim’s identity, among other factors, in explaining their reasoning for not issuing any mass notifications to parents. But that judgment was second-guessed Tuesday by parents, students and others, who said the case raised questions about the criteria school officials weigh in deciding whether to inform parents of criminal activity at schools.

“I hadn’t heard anything about it,” said Arthur Wallace, whose son is a 10th-grader at the school. Wallace was incredulous that a rape could be reported on campus and his family would first learn about it in the newspaper, adding there was “no doubt” he should have been apprised sooner.

Edwards initially refused to comment on the investigation but said Tuesday that administrators must be “very careful in protecting the due process rights of all students involved.” He described the sexual assault as “an isolated situation where students made a decision.”

“Based on the investigation of the matter, there may be some complicity on behalf of all three students,” Edwards said, referring to the victim and the two suspects. “We wanted to create as little controversy for those students as we possibly could.”

Asked to elaborate, Edwards suggested there could be “mitigating” circumstances in the case but declined to be more specific, citing the ongoing investigation. “I don’t mean to imply that there was no victim,” he added.

Casey Rayborn Hicks, a Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman, said detectives found sufficient probable cause “based on information gathered from the interview with the victim.” According to arrest warrants, surveillance footage at the school also showed the 14-year-old victim being dragged into the bathroom by her backpack.

The girl told investigators she had been walking down the hall with Dwayne Reed — an 18-year-old who is wanted on one count of principal to forcible rape — and the 16-year-old when the latter student told Reed to check whether a teacher was coming.

Surveillance footage shows Reed “standing outside the bathroom as a lookout,” the warrant says.

Craig Freeman, a member of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, said his colleagues should consider whether some offenses merit automatic parental notification. “I don’t know that we did the wrong thing at Woodlawn,” Freeman said, “but it’s a conversation we need to have as a board so that we are clear what the protocol is.”

An 11th-grader interviewed at the school Tuesday, who asked her name be withheld, said students should have been made aware of the rape claim if for no other reason than their own vigilance in the hallways they walk through every day. “It is a big deal,” she said, “but I don’t have any say-so.”

Ken Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, said he strongly advises school leaders to err on the side of “overly communicating” with parents when it comes to safety issues.

“While principals do not need to send letters and e-mail blasts home to parents about every student altercation or fight in the hallway, a felony crime like a rape rises to a different security and communications standard,” Trump said.

The incident prompted school leaders to advise “teachers and staff to adopt a heightened awareness regarding monitoring students in hallways and bathrooms while classes are in session and during class changes to ensure they have current hall passes ... and are behaving appropriately at all times,” said Keith Bromery, a school district spokesman.

While school officials implied there had been some disagreement over what occurred inside the bathroom stall, the arrest warrant depicted the 16-year-old’s actions in graphic detail.

“The victim stated that after he finished, they walked out of the stall and other boys began grabbing her in an attempt to pull her back into the stall,” the warrant states.

Forcible rape is defined in Louisiana law as a rape “committed when the anal, oral, or vaginal sexual intercourse is deemed to be without the lawful consent of the victim.” The 16-year-old has not been adjudicated in juvenile court, and it’s possible he could face a lesser charge if prosecutors determine there is some weakness in the rape case.

In the meantime, school board members said they may discuss the pros and cons of parental notification for situations as serious as rapes on campus.

“I would have liked to have heard about this sooner,” said board member Barbara Freiberg, who received an email from school officials about a “possible news story” about the sexual assault but could not recall hearing any details before then.

“There will be some questions asked on this one,” Freiberg said.

Notification decisions currently are made at the school level, according to Bromery, the school district’s spokesman.

“An example of an incident that could lead to a large scale parent/guardian notification would be an incident witnessed by, or affecting, a large group of students or one that results in a delayed dismissal or a school lock down,” Bromery said.

Trump, the security consultant, said he tells school administrators “that there are no secrets in schools, just stories that have yet to be told.”

“To think that you can hope that a crime like a rape in school will be kept quiet and go away fails to recognize today’s world of texting, social media and a world on digital steroids,” he added.

Advocate staff writer Charles Lussier contributed to this report.