The thought of walking across the graduation stage — looking out into the crowd and seeing his face — gave her panic attacks for weeks.
She couldn’t sleep the night before, knowing that commencement ceremonies at Gardner-Edgerton High School would mean being near this classmate nearly two years after he raped her in her bedroom. And only a few months after he was convicted for it.
The 18-year-old said she had brought up her fears with the school district. That she felt threatened. That she had an order of protection against him.
The school, she said, promised that a staff member would meet her at the entrance. There would be extra security. And an employee would sit in her row.
But when she arrived that day in May, both she and her mother allege, none of those precautions were taken.
“I thought it was insane that they were telling a victim that you’re going to walk them to their chair and then not do that,” she told The Star recently. “I was like, OK, you’re going to let a registered sex offender walk across the stage with his victim present.”
Graduation day was just the latest example of ways the school district did not take her seriously and failed to protect her, she and her mother said.
▪ When she reported the rape in October 2019, she should have been offered support under Title IX, the law barring gender discrimination in federally funded schools. The measures can include counseling, homework extensions and schedule changes. Those were never offered, she and her mother said.
▪ She said her school did not inform her of her right to file a formal complaint, triggering a district investigation. That potentially could have led to her assailant being disciplined, suspended or expelled. She said she was never told she had that option; the district relied solely on the separate criminal process.
▪ The only support the district did offer her was to have an employee escort her to classes or stand by her in the halls, she said, but she felt that would have singled her out rather than protect her.
▪ In an interview with The Star, the male teenager said school officials told him to avoid contact with her, including in the hallways and at graduation. But she claims she saw him between classes and at student events multiple times.
“It felt like this entire time, they didn’t really care. It felt like they were trying to sweep it under the rug,” she said.
Meanwhile, word that she was pressing charges against her classmate immediately spread all over school, she said. Students, including some who had been close friends, shouted at her in the hallways.
People would say, ‘He didn’t rape you, you f****ing liar.’ They’d scream at me. It came to be way too much,” she said.
“Karma is going to get you one day,” one classmate texted her.
They took the side of the popular football player, the one whose family donated thousands to the team, the one who made it so she couldn’t sleep in her own bedroom ever again.
“I felt like if I was a rich kid and did a lot for the school, if I was more popular, if I was more academically successful as a child, the district would have done more,” she said. “But because he was academically successful, and his parents had a lot of money and did a lot for the school, it felt like they were bowing to what he wanted.”
The Star generally does not identify victims of sexual assault without their permission. The young man and his family are not being named because he was charged when he was a minor.
As the police investigated, and as her mental health deteriorated, it became clear to her that the young man would be allowed to continue attending their high school. She felt she had no choice but to leave. She transferred to another southwest Johnson County district, then dropped out briefly, before finishing her education at Gardner-Edgerton’s alternative high school.
Her experience is a common one, said Shiwali Patel, director of justice for student survivors at the National Women’s Law Center.
“One issue that we notice in our litigation is that a student who was sexually assaulted was ultimately punished in some way or pushed out of school, even though that is the person who was victimized and should have had all the support from the school in order to learn and feel safe,” Patel said.
A survey of more than 100 student survivors — conducted this past year by the student advocacy group Know Your IX — found a widespread failure on the part of schools to fulfill their obligations under Title IX. The civil rights law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in colleges, universities and K-12 schools that receive public funding.
According to the survey, 39% of survivors who reported sexual violence to their schools experienced a substantial disruption in their education. About 27% took a leave of absence, 20% transferred schools and nearly 10% dropped out.
Missouri and Kansas ranked second and third in the nation, behind only Maryland, for incidents of rape or attempted rape reported in public schools in the 2017-18 school year, the most recent year for which statistics are available, and nationwide, the problem has only grown, according to the U.S. Education Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection.
And changes to Title IX implemented last year may only exacerbate the problem, victims’ rights advocates say, granting more power to the accused and inhibiting survivors from reporting sexual assault.
The recent Gardner graduate said she’s sharing her experience in the hopes that other survivors will receive the support she never did.
“Unfortunately, it’s a common thing. I’m not the only girl at Gardner; other girls have gone through this,” she said. “I really hope I’m the last girl.”
Curtis Tideman, an attorney representing the Gardner-Edgerton school district, told The Star that district officials and school board members would not comment, citing student confidentiality.
“While neither you nor anyone else has provided me with information suggesting that the district mishandled the situation, I must again decline to comment on behalf of the district,” he said in an email.
The young man’s father, in an interview with The Star, denied that his son raped her. The young man declined to address the details of the incident. He agreed to a plea deal in March, where he said he received six months probation for aggravated sexual battery and will be listed on the sex offender registry for five years.
‘Are you sure you want to press charges?’
She was already having a difficult time, both at home and at school, before she was sexually assaulted at the age of 16 by her best friend’s brother.
“My sophomore year, I lost my stepdad because he walked out on our family,” she said. “I was going through a lot at home. We were moving and then moved again. So doing school wasn’t my top priority. I just didn’t try in high school. I’m not afraid to admit that.”
Raised by a single mom, she said she mostly tried to keep to herself in high school. She often found refuge at her best friend’s house. She spent time with the entire family, eating dinner or having sleepovers multiple days a week.
“I always knew it was a safe place I could go to. So when all of this did happen, it just shocked me,” she said. “I thought of (him) as a brother.”
The father in the family told The Star she was like another daughter to them. The family is well known in the town of about 20,000. The father has owned several prosperous businesses. He said he donated $10,000 to the football program, where his son made the varsity team early on in high school.
One day in the fall of 2019, his son messaged her that he was having a bad day, she said. She had somewhere to be later that night, but still invited him over to hang out and watch TV in her room.
“He just seemed off, incredibly off,” she said. “I was like, this is really weird.”
“And then he was trying to convince me to have sex. That’s when he forced himself on me,” she said. “He’s quite bigger than me, at least 100 pounds heavier than I am, and he towers over me.”
He was 6-feet-1 and roughly 250 pounds. She was 5 feet tall, weighed about 135, she said.
“At that point, I was scared. I said ‘stop.’ I was scared to push him off of me because he was so much bigger than me. I froze in fear because I didn’t know what to do.”
He raped her with his fingers while he masturbated, she said.
“After he was done, after he finished, he just left. He didn’t say anything and just left.”
In Kansas, rape is defined as knowingly engaging in sexual intercourse with a victim who does not consent, including under circumstances “when the victim is overcome by force or fear.” Intercourse includes “any penetration of the female sex organ by a finger, the male sex organ or any object.”
It took about a week for her to tell her mom. She broke down crying in the car one day, the teen said, “and I was just blaming myself for everything.”
“And then I told my mom I didn’t want to press charges because it was my best friend’s brother and I didn’t want to lose my best friend.”
She confided in one of her teachers, who encouraged her to report what had happened, she said. She then went to a school resource officer, a member of the Gardner Police Department.
She said she told the officer everything that happened and says he responded, “Can you re-say that because I need to record it.”
“He was like, ‘I don’t know if this is going to go anywhere in court. Are you sure you want to press charges?’” she said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to press charges, that’s why I’m here.’”
In the survey of student survivors conducted by Know Your IX, several victims “explained that their PTSD diagnoses were linked not only to the violence, but also to their schools’ responses to that violence.”
One survivor, “reported that her trauma nightmares involve not only re-experiencing the assault, but also re-experiencing the horrific ways her school’s Title IX office treated her throughout the reporting process.”
“Sexual assault itself can have really extensive and lifelong impacts,” said Joyce Grover, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. “That kind of trauma can impact your ability in many ways, your mental health, your physical health. And that’s really difficult in the education system, because you see the survivor drop out of school or not being able to excel or stay in school. That can destabilize their lives in a different manner.”
‘I didn’t feel safe’
She quickly felt exiled.
She lost her friend group and any sense of safety she had at school. But she also lost any feeling of security she had in her own home. After she reported the incident, Gardner police began investigating, she said. They came to her home and took her bedding, which had not been washed.
Her mother, as well as the father of the male teenager, both said that semen found on the bedding matched the young man’s DNA.
“She couldn’t be in her room. She was sleeping downstairs on the couch. If I was gone at work, she’d sleep in my room,” her mother said. “She couldn’t handle having that same bed anymore. There was too much of an emotional, traumatic connection. So we bought her a new bed, everything new.”
The police investigation forced her to repeat and relive what had happened that day in her bedroom upward of 15 times.
The young man’s father denied the rape. At the police station, he said, police recorded a conversation he had alone with his son. He said he asked him what had happened. And his son allegedly said, “masturbation.” While the young man did agree to an interview with The Star, he declined to explain what happened that day.
“For months, I worried my daughter would take her own life because she was so depressed from the rape,” her mother said. “I was scared to go wake her up in the morning.”
Meanwhile, the school offered little support, she and her mother said. She would see him in the hallway, or be bullied by his friends, and she carried around the sinking feeling that he was always there.
“The school was not helping. They were like, there’s nothing we can do,” the teen said. “They were like, ‘We can walk you to class.’ But I was like, ‘I don’t want to be walked to class.’ Why do I have to be walked to class? That’s not fair that you’re going to single me out.”
She said she looked at the school’s master schedule to make sure she was not in classes with him and to avoid seeing him in the halls.
“(School officials) said they can’t do anything because he wasn’t convicted, he was only charged,” her mother said. “So it made it difficult for us to do anything.”
Several experts and advocates told The Star that schools often wait for the results of a law enforcement investigation before fully responding to a sexual assault report, even though Title IX provides for a separate investigation by school officials.
“It’s a common occurrence for schools to identify barriers with moving forward with the Title IX process because of a criminal investigation,” said Victoria Pickering, with the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault in Kansas City. “The guidelines were put in place so that students do not have to wait on a criminal investigation to get support from school.”
The Gardner-Edgerton school district’s Title IX policy states, “if discrimination or harassment has occurred, the district will take prompt, remedial action to stop it and prevent its reoccurrence.”
It states that officials should contact the complainant to discuss the availability of supportive measures such as: counseling, extensions of deadlines or course-related adjustments, modifications of work or class schedules, escorts, leaves of absence and increased security or monitoring.
The young woman alleged that other than being offered an escort to class or to have a staff member stand by her in the hall — both of which made her uncomfortable — no other support services were offered. And they never asked her if she wanted to file an official complaint.
“They kept saying, ‘We can’t do anything,’” her mother said. “It was always an excuse about why they couldn’t do something.”
The young man told The Star that school staff informed him of the report against him and told him, “I need to stay away from her, and even if we take the same hallways, I need to choose a different route to class.”
She said she frequently would “go to the bathroom and have an anxiety attack because it was so much.”
“They should have assessed what she needed to be able to learn again,” Patel said. “They should have provided accommodations, extensions on coursework or exams, issue a no-contact order so that she feels safe. Unfortunately, while that’s often the thing students want — they want the support of school and to feel safe again — too many times, schools are not doing that and not offering those services.”
Unable to sleep in her own home, she left her school and moved in with her grandmother. She began attending Olathe Northwest High School, but continued to worry that her rapist would show up at any time. Shortly after switching schools, she dropped out.
“Gardner didn’t care, and I feel like that’s not OK,” she said. “People should feel safe in school. They should feel safe going to where they’re going to learn. I didn’t feel safe. I dropped out of high school eventually because of it.”
The laws changed
She had pressed charges in October of her junior year. “No progress had been made by October of my senior year,” she said.
She returned to Gardner and enrolled in the alternative high school to finish her senior year, spending most of it online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Online classes ended up being a blessing, she said.
But her mother said she continually questioned, “Why am I the one who has to move schools?”
Her mother broke the lease to their house and they moved, she said, “because her anxiety was overwhelmingly bad and nothing we did could fix it.”
A litany of court proceedings plagued that entire year, forcing her to see her rapist on Zoom hearings.
“I hate to be the person to say money buys you a lot of opportunities, but in this case it does,” her mother said. “It was hard. He had multiple attorneys on the case. That’s something I know most people can’t do.”
The court issued a no-contact order against the young man.
And in March of this year, they accepted a plea agreement. He pleaded down to aggravated sexual battery. He’s on probation for six months and will be listed on the sex offender registry for five years, he said. It can be expunged from his record in five years.
“He took the plea because of the risk of what it’d be if it went the other way (at trial),” his father said.
After his conviction, the young man said the school informed him he had to continue taking online classes for the rest of his senior year as other students returned to in-person learning. “And I fought that,” his dad said.
At this point, her mother felt that the school district “was kind of like, it fixed itself” because her daughter had moved to the alternative school. And she felt that wasn’t good enough.
If she would have reported sexual assault to her school one year later, in 2020, it’s possible the entire process would have been even more difficult. Advocates argue that changes to Title IX, implemented last August, will make students less inclined to report sexual assault.
The framework, put in place by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in the Trump administration, exempted schools from having to respond to many off-campus incidents and bolstered due process protections for accused students.
One of the biggest changes is a narrowed definition of sexual harassment. The previous definition included any unwelcome sexual conduct. Under the new rule, that unwelcome conduct, for example, must be so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to education.
“It forces the victim to endure repeated and escalating levels of abuse,” said Grover of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. “And when you think about that, if someone is sexually assaulted or raped one time, does that meet the definition of sexual harassment under these new regulations?”
Under the new rule, supportive measures offered to victims cannot be punitive or unreasonably burdensome to the accused.
It also exempts schools from having to respond to many off-campus incidents. They require that schools are only responsible for investigating claims that occur in a school’s “education program or activity,” including school-sponsored events off campus where the school has “substantial control” over the respondent and incident.
“If somebody is assaulted in a one-time incident, even though it may be a severe incident, it begs the question about whether they should come forward with it under these new regulations,” Grover said.
“This impacts all of our kids in K-12. And I think these regulations have taken us way back. These changes have been really destructive. So it’s really critical that we pay attention and help us move these regulations forward again.”
President Joe Biden campaigned on overturning the new rule. At Education Department hearings earlier this month, hundreds of survivors and advocates called for change.
The most recent federal data from the the Civil Rights Data Collection shows that between the 2015-16 school year and the 2017-18 school year, reports of sexual violence in public schools increased by more than half. And reports of rape or attempted rape nearly doubled.
The National Women’s Law Center has released a call to action to 100 school districts across the country, urging them to improve their response to sexual harassment and assault. The organization pushes for sexual health education for all students, training on sexual harassment for all staff, dress codes to be abolished, and for schools to replace police officers with trained social workers.
“The #MeToo movement was huge in the celebrity world. But unfortunately, I don’t think it carried into the real world. I don’t think it’s taken seriously,” the teen girl’s mother said. “And that’s a pretty horrible thing to say. But to have girls or boys who are victimized actually protected, there needs to be more done.”
There are others
When she arrived at graduation, the young woman quickly learned that what her school had promised her would not be fulfilled.
She had messaged school staff several times to address her concerns about being in the same place as her assailant, she said, but felt they were ignoring her. Both she and the young man said they had seen each other at senior events leading up to graduation. Her anxiety grew.
Her mother questioned whether they could both attend graduation, considering her daughter had an order of protection. In an email shared with The Star, the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office explained that it would be allowed under the no-contact order.
“From my understanding, Gardner’s high school graduation will be a fairly large activity and the two students won’t be near each other. As long as they can be kept apart (i.e. not called up to the stage at the same time, etc.) and there is adult supervision making sure he is not trying to talk to her or wink at her or anything, then it is our belief that in our usual protocol, this would be allowed,” the email stated.
The young man told The Star that during graduation, “instead of being able to walk around the football field where everybody else was, I had to walk in a different entrance,” with an administrator. And he had to stay near the administrator throughout the ceremony.
The young woman was promised an escort to her chair and then back to her mother after the ceremony, as well as having a staff member near her throughout the event. That never materialized, she said.
She was thankful the ceremony went on without much issue.
When she walked across the stage to get her diploma, she looked out on the crowd and saw her mother surrounded by women, all wearing T-shirts that read, “Take a stand against sexual assault.”
Graduating, she said, “felt like a relief. I’m finally out of this. I don’t have to deal with the district not caring anymore. It was a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders.”
Now that she’s done with high school, she has started working full time at a day care. She said she’s grateful to “go into my job every day knowing that they’re not going to let anything happen to me.”
While she said she’s been getting the help she needs, slowly dwelling less on what happened to her, many thoughts continue to linger.
Among them, what a fellow classmate told her at graduation.
“I had a girl walk up to me and say, ‘I’m going through the same thing as you and I’m so sorry.’”
“I really hope my class is the last set of girls that ever have to go through this. Because it’s not fair. And it’s traumatizing, when your school is clearly ignoring you and they don’t seem to care.”
Where to get help
▪ The Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault provides a 24-hour crisis line, sexual assault counseling, student and adult survivor counseling, and hospital advocacy services for Kansas City area residents. 816-531-0233 and 913-642-0233.
▪ The National Sexual Assault Hotline is free and confidential, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Live chat is available at Rainn.org. 800-656-4673 (HOPE).
▪ SafeBAE — SafeBAE.org — is a student-led organization working to end sexual assault among middle and high school students. It was co-founded by Daisy Coleman, a teen victim of sexual assault in Missouri who took her own life last year.
▪ The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for free, in English and Spanish. 800-273-8255.