A local family is suing the Prince George's County school district, saying it failed to protect a young teen from sexual abuse while on campus. The lawsuit further claims Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School officials mishandled the case once they learned what happened and wrongly punished the victim following the incident.
The sexual encounter at the heart of the lawsuit involves a 14-year-old girl with developmental disabilities and up to six young men. The alleged assault occurred on campus during school hours in April 2018, according to the lawsuit and police incident reports, and at least a portion of the encounter was recorded on mobile phones.
"I felt scared. I didn't know what was going on," the victim, now a senior in high school, told the News4 I-Team.
Because she is a victim of an alleged sexual assault, News4 is not identifying the teen or her grandparents, who are her legal guardians. They said that, even three years later, they have trouble comprehending what happened to their granddaughter and have many unanswered questions for the school district.
"They promised that they would watch her and make sure she would be safe," the victim's grandmother said. "She's mentally challenged. Anyone can basically convince her to do anything. She can't make good decisions."
The teen told News4 she was walking in the hall when a boy she knew asked her to come with him and grabbed her arm. She said she resisted and tried to proceed to class, but he took her to the gym, where others were waiting.
"They was forcing me to do stuff," she told the I-Team. "I didn't want to do that. I just wanted to get my education and learn and go to class."
A school district spokesperson declined comment because of the pending litigation.
“It is absurd that, in this day and age, that can happen to a student in a public school and no one takes responsibility,” said Stan Brown, an attorney for the girl and her family.
Brown said part of the incident was recorded on mobile phones and shared on social media for months, further traumatizing the girl. He said the video showed the girl’s face and parts of some of the alleged perpetrators’ bodies.
Because of his client’s disabilities, he said she was unable to identify all of the suspects nor does she know if they were all students or possibly trespassers on school property.
"I am unaware at this point in time whether or not they have been identified," said Brown, adding that the school should have been able to do that if the teens used Wi-Fi to share the video to classmates.
Prince George's County police told the I-Team the school did identify three students believed to be involved and detectives forwarded the case to the office of the State’s Attorney, but charges were not filed.
A spokeswoman for State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy, who was not in office at the time of the alleged assault, said the office does not comment on cases involving juveniles.
In a statement, the spokeswoman said: “This matter was closed before the current administration came into office, and no one who is currently in the office worked on this matter. State’s Attorney Braveboy takes all incidences involving children very seriously and it is the standard practice of this administration to meet with victims and their families.”
The lawsuit — which includes two police reports in its exhibits — lays out a complicated timeline of the incident and alleges the school failed the victim in a number of ways.
According to the lawsuit, a gym teacher “interrupted” part of the encounter but “did not assist” the victim and failed to report the incident.
The first incident report indicates that, later that day, other students reported hearing about the sexual encounter. School security then located the victim in the hallway and conducted an "informal interview,” during which the victim denied being involved in any sexual acts.
A school resource officer notified the police department’s sexual assault unit and discussed the incident with a detective, according to the police report, which characterized the encounter as a "miscellaneous police incident.”
A subsequent police report indicates it wasn’t until the second day, after the video of the alleged attack was confirmed, that detectives responded to conduct a forensic interview and sent the victim to the hospital for a sexual assault forensic exam.
In that follow-up police report, the incident was reclassified as a "second-degree rape" and listed six unknown suspects.
The girl’s grandmother told News4 that neither she nor her husband were notified about the incident until the second day, when their granddaughter was sent for a forensic exam.
"I would like a full investigation done. Not just for the school, but also for (Prince George’s) police, because it's like they swept it under the carpet," the grandmother said. "I believe strongly that there should be criminal charges."
The grandparents told the I-Team they don't know if, or how many, of the boys were disciplined by the school, but they said their granddaughter was suspended for a week.
"I said, 'I don't believe this. She's supposed to be the victim,’” her grandfather said.
Dr. Carolyn Stone, who serves as Ethics Chair for the American School Counselor Association, called the girl’s suspension “salt in the wound” and said a student with developmental disabilities needs “additional protection” and support.
"This was a child who could not consent to a sex act,” Stone said. “Bottom line: She consented to nothing. She was a victim no matter how she was approached, no matter what her response was.”
Stone added that federal Title IX regulations, which protect against sexual discrimination and violence, would require an investigation by the school district to ensure fair and equitable treatment, such as making sure the student is separated from her alleged attackers.
The grandparents said if a Title IX investigation happened, they were not involved. The school district would not say because of the pending litigation.
“Parents have to be provided with the materials used in the investigation," Stone said.
The teen girl’s grandparents said the incident changed her emotionally, even if she doesn't fully understand it. They said they filed the lawsuit to try to prevent a similar situation from happening to others.
"I believe that whoever goes to that school is not safe; their kids are not safe,” the grandmother said, adding the school “showed no responsibility. None whatsoever.”
Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Katie Leslie, and shot and edited by Steve Jones and Jeff Piper.