A survivor's story: Sex assault and harassment in Georgia schools

Disposable. Degrading. That's how "Victoria" describes feeling after she says she was raped by a middle school classmate. In the ensuing years, Victoria says the Jefferson City, GA Schools did nothing to protect her from continued harassment.

“Disposable.”

“Degrading.”

“Had no control.”

“Hit rock bottom.”

They're words you rarely hear from a person. Much less a girl who turned 17 just a few weeks before.

But that’s how Victoria, her name changed here to protect the family’s identity, described feeling after she said she was raped by a middle school classmate and the school system she’d attended since kindergarten did nothing to protect her from continued harassment.

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“At first I tried to pretend it didn’t happen and tried to tell myself it was normal,” remembers Victoria. “But it was really soul-crushing and I was really, really quiet. And I didn’t talk to anybody much and I started cutting myself.”

Victoria was in seventh grade at Jefferson Middle School in Jefferson, Georgia. She had just turned 13 when she went to hang out with classmates at a friend’s house. According to Victoria, a boy used a friend to lure other kids away so he could get her alone in the basement where he violently raped her.

“He had all this control over me,” said Victoria. “He’s a coward and what he did was cowardly. And it’s not me who should be ashamed of what happened or scared of him.”

When Victoria came home that night, her parents knew immediately something was wrong.

“She never had self-esteem issues,” said Victoria’s mom. “She was always comfortable in her own skin. Always comfortable with who she was. She just shut down. She did not speak. She did not interact.”

Victoria went to school on Monday and tried to pretend nothing was wrong. It would take months before her parents learned what had happened. Her father saw her journal open to a page which detailed the alleged rape. It was a heartbreaking way for a parent to learn of their daughter’s trauma.

“It was horrible. It was devastating,” said her mom.

Victoria’s parents immediately got her into counseling and reported the alleged rape to police. After a few months, when they felt Victoria was stronger, they made a report with the school. By this time, she was in eighth grade and their goal was to make sure their daughter didn’t have to be in the same classroom as her alleged attacker.

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“I had four out of six classes in eighth grade with my rapist,” said Victoria. “And that was really difficult because the school was aware of it at that point. And they weren’t going to do anything about it.”

Jefferson City Schools Superintendent John Jackson said the entire district only has 4,000 students, so it was limited in its ability to move the students to separate classes. Since police investigated and had closed the case without pressing charges, he said the district had no ground for its own disciplinary action. The boy insisted he did nothing wrong.

But after researching Title IX and hiring a lawyer, Victoria's family believes the school could have and should have done much, much more. They filed a Title IX complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

“At no point were there ever any accommodations from the beginning to give her a chance to not have the burden on her,” said her mother. “The burden was always on the victim, up to the very end when the last day he shows up in a class. After all of that, he’s back in a class together and they only would change her schedule, not his.”

Victoria said her complaints went beyond rape. She said the boy and his friends harassed her in class and in the hallways. Victoria's mom said she made complaints at least five times to then principal, Heidi Hill, to report verbal harassment and intimidation, creating a hostile learning environment.

Jackson said he can find no evidence those complaints were made. He does know the male student was never disciplined by the school for anything related to this case.

According to the federal complaint the harassment included:

  • spreading rumors that he and Victoria had sex;
  • asking Victoria to send him nude photos on Snapchat, and after she said no, telling students at school she did;
  • making sexually based comments about her in class on an almost daily basis;
  • announcing that he wanted to “f---” her;
  • taunting her at cross country practice, calling her “sl--,” “w----,” and “b----;”
  • after learning Victoria was cutting herself, making red marks on wrists, mimicking cutting, and chanting “I’m Victoria. I’m Victoria.” Victoria told her parents she hated herself and wanted to die.
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Victoria graduated middle school and went to Jefferson High School, along with her alleged rapist. When high school began Victoria and her family were hopeful the school administration would finally work with them.

“When we went to the school system we had full faith they would help us,” said Victoria's mother. “We had full faith in the police. We had no idea that they wouldn’t help us. It never occurred to us. You know, when you do something wrong, there’s a system in place that manages that.”

The schools came to an agreement with Victoria, her family, and the family of her alleged rapist. Victoria’s mom said all parties involved signed a “separation agreement” essentially to ensure the two children would not be in class, communicate or interact with each other.

According to Victoria’s mom, “[The school administrator] then he went on to say you know you could be seen as a harasser in this,” she said. “Because this child has a right to an education too. And as you continue to push us to enforce these agreements then you’re potentially infringing on his ability to get an education.”

According to the complaint, that agreement was broken time and time again. The final straw occurred in the second semester of their freshman year when Victoria said she walked into one her classes and found the boy sitting in the room.

Superintendent Jackson is limited by privacy laws on what he can say about the case. But he believes the schools did everything they could to protect the rights of both students to an equal, hostility-free education.

Jackson said, in high school, the administration noticed the scheduling conflict before the semester began and moved Victoria to another, equivalent-level class at a different period. He’s not sure why she didn’t have the new schedule but defended the school's handling of the situation.

Eventually, Victoria felt her only recourse was to leave the school. Halfway through her freshman year, she left the school system she’d attended since kindergarten and enrolled in private school.

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“That was my biggest part of my healing, I think - walking away from the school,” remembers Victoria, who is now 17 and a junior at another school.

“[There was] no mention of Title IX or their daughter’s rights,” said Cari Simon with The Fierberg National Law Group, who’s representing Victoria and her family. “Leaving a victim in class with their perpetrators, abandoning a school’s responsibility to the police, and leaving no choice but for the victim to drop out of a school is far too common. Our children deserve better.“

Title IX is a federal law passed in 1972 to ensure equal treatment for women on school campuses receiving federal funds - from kindergarten to graduate school. In regard to sexual assaults and harassment, it’s supposed to protect the victim’s education while the school investigates. The school’s role is very clear in federal law:

Victoria’s family was never notified of their rights under Title IX, nor did they speak with the school’s Title IX coordinator. It’s unclear if the district even considered this a Title IX issue or simply a matter of bullying. We know there was no investigation into complaints of harassment since the district admits it can find no formal reports of harassment being made.

Sexual assault and harassment in K-12 a bigger problem

Our 11Alive investigation found Jefferson City is far from the only school district in Georgia dealing with sexual assault and harassment in schools. According to Georgia’s Department of Education, more than 7,000 students were disciplined last school year for sexual misconduct, harassment or battery. Nearly a third of those were students in middle school. But the number of students disciplined varies widely by district. Most metro school districts reported less than 300 offenses in the 2017 school year, compared to Gwinnett County which reported more than 1,200 students disciplined for some kind of sexual misconduct.

School system Sexual Misconduct Title IX Investigations Years

Barrow Co. 1 2017

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Clayton Co. 1 2016

Cobb Co. 1 2015

Fulton Co. 2 2016, 2017

Gwinnett Co. 3 2016 (2), 2017

Jefferson City 1 2016

Hall Co. 1 2018

READ: See how many sex assaults/harassments your child’s school system had

11Alive News submitted an open records request to Jefferson City Schools asking for information about the investigation, disciplinary records from staff members who were involved in Victoria’s case and Title IX training records for their staff members. We are in the process of reviewing that information.

According to the family’s Office of Civil Rights complaint, two other girls reported the same boy had physically assaulted them. One student said he choked her on campus until she almost passed out and made unwanted sexual advances. This girl chose not to report it because the school had failed to do anything about him in the past and she did not want to be harassed like Victoria.

“I have a national practice representing survivors of sexual violence in the school setting, from K-12 to college,” said Simon. “I find that K-12 schools are often light years behind colleges in responding to sexual assault. At some schools, Title IX coordinators themselves do not know they have that job.”

Victoria and her parents are telling their story now in hopes that other sexual assault and harassment victims will learn they have rights under the law.

“If another student or teacher's subjected your child to sexual violence, your child has rights under Title IX and the Constitution,” said Simon. “Do not let anyone tell you your child does not have rights. “

“The first thing, I think, is I’m glad I still have her,” said Victoria's mother. “There were many times I didn’t think I would. In the beginning, when we didn’t know about the rape, she wanted to die. She told me, 'I want to die,' and she could have done something and I would have never known why. And I live with that and that hurts.”

What a teen wishes she’d told herself

Victoria is nearing the end of her junior year at a private Christian school. She looks forward to leaving Jefferson, going to college and becoming an advocate for victims like herself.

“I want other people to feel comfortable and safe in sharing their stories because I know it was really, really hard for me to share mine until it was kind of forced out,” she said.

Victoria has started sharing her story locally. First, in Bible study and then with us. She is soft spoken, yet expresses herself with the poise of an adult who is wise beyond her 17 years.

She already has advice for young women - or men - who may be in a similar situation.

“Not to be ashamed of what happened to me because it’s going to make a big impact one day,” Victoria said. “And to go to my family first. They are the only people who, in the end, stayed with me and supported me.”

Victoria has also found strength in writing.

“It kind of helped me to put down my thoughts, like, organize them," she said. "But, it wasn’t the same as actually talking to a real person.”

One of her best support systems has come from a surprising source. Her bunny, Charlie.

Victoria's pet rabbit, Charlie, has been a source of comfort for her as she deals with the aftermath of an alleged sexual assault. (Photo: Becky Kellogg)

“He’d just sit with me and chew my papers when I was done with them. He’s just really comforting.

Victoria said speaking out was, at first, scary. But it has become a saving grace of sorts.

“If you try to silence them [victims] then, a lot of times they don’t want to speak up for the rest of their lives,” said Victoria. “And it kind of makes them feel like they’re to blame.”

Her advice to others who may have a friend, family member or student come forward with a sexual assault or harassment?

“I just want to be a voice for the people who don’t feel like they have a voice and to advocate for those people because no one really stands up for them," she said. "Especially in school systems and the government. It’s ignored. And it can’t be ignored anymore.”