The Hidden Horror of School Sexual Assaults Revealed by AP

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Chaz Wing was 12 when they came after him. The classmates who tormented him were children, too, entering the age of pimples and cracking voices.

Eventually, he swore under oath, the boys raped him and left him bleeding, the culmination of a year of harassment. Though Chaz repeatedly told teachers and administrators about insults and physical attacks, he didn’t report being sexually assaulted until a year later, launching a long legal fight over whether his school had done enough to protect him.

Chaz’s saga is more than a tale of escalating bullying. Across the U.S., thousands of students have been sexually assaulted, by other students, in high schools, junior highs and even elementary schools — a hidden horror educators have long been warned not to ignore.

Relying on state education records, supplemented by federal crime data, a yearlong investigation by The Associated Press uncovered roughly 17,000 official reports of sex assaults by students over a four-year period, from fall 2011 to spring 2015.

Though that figure represents the most complete tally yet of sexual assaults among the nation’s 50 million K-12 students, it does not fully capture the problem because such attacks are greatly under-reported, some states don’t track them and those that do vary widely in how they classify and catalog sexual violence. A number of academic estimates range sharply higher.

“Schools are required to keep students safe,” said Charol Shakeshaft, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who specializes in school sexual misconduct. “It is part of their mission. It is part of their legal responsibility. It isn’t happening. Why don’t we know more about it, and why isn’t it being stopped?”

Elementary and secondary schools have no national requirement to track or disclose sexual violence, and they feel tremendous pressure to hide it. Even under varying state laws, acknowledging an incident can trigger liabilities and requirements to act.

And when schools don’t act — or when their efforts to root out abuse are ineffectual — justice is not served.

This, Chaz Wing said in his lawsuit against the Brunswick school district, is precisely what happened to him.

Though the school contests whether any rapes occurred, the AP found that school administrators allowed Chaz’s bullying to escalate and then failed to adequately investigate his allegations of sexual abuse.

From almost his first day at Brunswick Junior High, Chaz said kids harassed him, taunted him about his weight and subjected him to ordeals like a “gay test.” Complaining to teachers and administrators didn’t help, he said. He slid into depression and refused to go to school.

Then one day in 2012, his mom came home and found him curled up in her bed, rocking back and forth. She begged him to tell her what was wrong. Slowly, his words came out.

“They hurt me,” he cried.

He said he’d been raped. Three times.

Chaz told police, child-abuse investigators and lawyers under oath that he kept quiet about the assaults for nearly a year because of threats against him and his family if he talked.

Sexual abuse allegations can be difficult to investigate. Because many accusers initially keep quiet, physical evidence can be long gone once investigators step in. Often, there are no eyewitnesses, leaving only the conflicting accounts of the accuser and the accused.

What Chaz told authorities and investigators — multiple times over four years — remained consistent, an AP review of government and court records shows. And a child-abuse examiner wrote of “strong evidence” that Chaz was sexually assaulted.

The school district staunchly defends how it handled its investigation. The junior high principal said his inquiry determined that the sexual assaults were “very unlikely.” One of the accused boys, he noted, had never even heard of anal rape.

“There is — as there should be — always an inclination to believe allegations of sexual assault at the outset,” district lawyer Melissa Hewey said in an email to AP. “But sometimes, the evidence compels the conclusion that those allegations are false.”

“The little boys who were accused,” she said, “are the real victims in this case and they deserve to be protected.”

A HIDDEN PROBLEM

Children remain most vulnerable to sexual assaults by other children in the privacy of a home, according to AP’s review of the federal crime data, which allowed for a more detailed analysis than state education records. But schools — where many more adults are keeping watch, and where parents trust their kids will be kept safe — are the No. 2 site where juveniles are sexually violated by their peers.

Ranging from rape and sodomy to forced oral sex and fondling, the sexual violence that AP tracked often was mischaracterized as bullying, hazing or consensual behavior. It occurred anywhere students were left unsupervised: buses and bathrooms, hallways and locker rooms. No type of school was immune, whether it be in an upper-class suburb, an inner-city neighborhood or a blue-collar farm town.

And all types of children were vulnerable, not just kids like Chaz who have trouble fitting in.

Unwanted fondling was the most common form of assault, but about one in five of the students assaulted were raped, sodomized or penetrated with an object, according to AP’s analysis of the federal incident-based crime data.

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