The alleged rape of a Garfield High School student in 2012 has led to a federal investigation and many questions.
  • Seattle Municipal Archives
  • The alleged rape of a Garfield High School student in 2012 has led to a federal investigation and many questions.

I've been following the Garfield High School rape case, which was first reported by Al Jazeera America and then analyzed smartly by Jezebel's Lindy West. On a class trip in 2012, a boy allegedly raped a 15-year-old girl. According to Al Jazeera, the girl repeatedly told him to stop and she reported the incident to authorities the next day. Medical records found physical evidence of anal intercourse and said she suffered from rape trauma syndrome, but federal authorities said they lacked sufficient evidence to press charges. According to Al Jazeera's report, the parents of the girl had difficulty getting clarity on whether and when the district was investigating the incident, though federal law requires a prompt investigation. Ultimately the district decided there was not enough evidence that an assault had occurred. There are many issues here, and very few people were willing to go on the record when I made calls about this, but the information I'm getting leads me to some questions about how this happened in the first place and why the district has been so apparently lackadaisical about addressing this incident.

This sort of case should always be taken seriously. Beyond that, the district needs to show it is seriously addressing the claims, concerns about the investigation, and the related policy issues for several reasons: (1) The case caused serious trauma to the victim and her family, according to statements they have made and actions they have taken; (2) district procedures may be insufficient; and (3) it's unclear whether these procedures have been changed since the incident. So here are my four unanswered questions:

1. Did the school district's adult chaperones leave these students unsupervised overnight? The alleged incident occurred during a November 2012 school trip to Olympic National Park. The outing included about seven adults and 40 students, a co-ed mix of sophomores and juniors. A source I've talked to who's familiar with the case says this seven-to-one ratio of adults-to-students is standard for field trips like this one, but the guidelines for overnight outings don't require adults to be in the space overnight with the students. Both vague and contradictory, district procedures for field trips tell chaperones to, on the one hand, "supervise students at all times" and "keep them easily within sight." However, it gives leeway to "determine what adequate supervision is during overnight stays" and explicitly says they can decide "how frequently to check the room," which makes it clear that the room can be unsupervised most of the time, the students may be out of sight, and adults may not be "with students at all times." That's apparently what happened in this case. How does the district reconcile these seemingly contradictory rules?

"I am not going to interpret that for you," said school district records keeper Julie Barbello, who sent me documents about field trip regulations. She did say there were adults in the same cabin as the kids, but the adults were asleep in separate rooms from where these kids were. As a result, on this trip, the students were essentially free to mingle at night without adult oversight when this alleged rape occurred. However, Barbello refused to explain the policy or speak about this incident. "I would not be the appropriate person to talk to," she said. I was referred yesterday to Seattle Schools spokeswoman Teresa Wippel. But I asked ten times for Wippel to call me—to clarify policy, procedure, reasoning, or some basics about this incident—and she refused to call or pick up her phone. Wippel instead e-mailed a boilerplate statement I'll get to down below.

2. Has the district changed this policy or procedure? The school district refuses to answer this question thus far. Let's be clear: Any dumbody knows that if you leave cabins of unsupervised 15- and 16-year-olds overnight (whether adults are sleeping in another room or another building), the kids may do stuff. When I was 12 years old at camp, I snuck off to a sleeping bag with a girl—and I'm a gay guy. Add a few years of testosterone and hetero orientation and you're practically guaranteeing sexual contact on trips like this one if zero adults are keeping an eye out. I don't want to suggest that kids on field trips can be policed every second, that an institution can create a catch-all policy that prevents any incident, that rape is an inevitability when teens are left alone, or that all of the blame here lies with the school district. But very close overnight supervision seems like pretty common-sense teen management. The school board was briefed on this incident prior to denying the appeal earlier this year; putting aside details of this case, that seems like sufficient warning that the district may have a procedural problem that could be fixed. To my knowledge, neither the board, nor superintendent José Banda, nor the coalition of middle-school and high-school principals that discussed this issue in 2013, have changed the way trips like this are handled.

3. Did the parents need to file a complaint to get this case investigated? The girl complained to law enforcement authorities the day after the incident, with the help of school officials who were on the trip, but the district reportedly sat for more than four months before undertaking its own investigation. "Under Title IX, a school must conduct a prompt investigation into any report of sexual assault and determine whether it is 'more likely than not' that it happened—a completely separate process from a criminal investigation, with a much lower burden of proof," Al Jazeera reported. In our e-mail exchange, Wippel didn't seem to protest this point: "Parents asked SPS to investigate and we did," Wippel wrote. She added in her statement, "We take the issue of sexual assault seriously and are continuing to work with all parties involved—including state and federal agencies and the family—to address the concerns that have been raised and ensure that the appropriate legal process is followed. The family has filed complaints with several oversight agencies, and we trust that resolution of those actions will be fair and equitable." The Department of Education's Civil Right's Office is investigating Seattle Public Schools for Title IX violations, as a result of this case. It seems federal intervention is the only way to hammer this idea—that the district must be proactively responsible for investigating rape allegations and defending the victim's interest, if need be—into the school district's head.

4. Can we stop blaming the victim here? On social media and in other forums, some folks are saying this girl somehow brought this on herself or that authorities were correct in declining to charging the boy because she made mistakes. There has been speculation about why the girl didn't file a formal complaint sooner, why she got in bed with the boy in the first place, whether she had initially wanted to have sex and then changed her mind. The facts are: This girl says she was raped and went to authorities the next day to report it. She is under zero obligation to submit to the further stress, embarrassment, and trauma of answering every immediate question from the school district's counselors, nor is a minor obligated to observe some arbitrary statute of limitations within a week to seek further action by the district. Under federal law, it's the district's obligation to investigate claims quickly.

Getting into bed with a boy on a camping trip is not consenting to anything that happens in that bed thereafter. Laying in bed with someone in a room full of other people is not in itself a consent to sex, and, if there was consensual sex to begin with, verbal or physical resistance during the act (she reportedly told him to stop several times) is sufficient grounds to say the sex was no longer consensual. It seems to me that through the district's inaction and decisions, it has effectively given credence to the boy's version of events (he returned to school saying he'd done nothing wrong, Al Jazeera reports) and cast doubt on the girl's version of events (she never returned to Garfield). Regardless of the findings in the criminal case, the school district's responsibility is to investigate promptly, change rules if need be, and—as a public institution—be transparent when the public asks reasonable questions. The district should also explain how it's responding to the Department of Education's investigation. Based on the information I've been able to gather so far, it seems to me the district has failed at all four of these responsibilities. Wippel, the board, and the superintendent have all refused to provide good answers or even return calls.

I have calls and e-mails in to the Seattle FBI office (seeking records on the original investigation), Seattle Public Schools (to answer these questions above), and the US Department of Education (to find out the scope of the Title IX investigation). I'll post more if I find new information.

This post has been updated since its original publication.