PENDER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - A Pender County mother is furious with the county school system, questioning how they handled the sexual assault of her six-year-old daughter on the school bus. The mother, who asked not to be named to protect her daughter’s privacy, believes lax school system policies enabled the assault, perpetrated by a middle schooler sharing the bus.
The assault was first reported on May 21, toward the end of last school year. The abuse had apparently been going on for about two weeks before the six-year-old told the bus driver an older boy had put his hands inside her pants and hurt her.
The girl’s mother credits the bus driver for immediately contacting the schools to report the crime, but it’s what happened in the weeks and months that followed that has her so upset.
“I think my biggest frustration is that no one wants to own this as their issue and everybody keeps pointing the finger at somebody else like this is their issue. Whether it is just a release of information or getting policies changed,” the mother explained.
First and foremost, she’s concerned that children of such varying ages are not only sharing a bus but sharing seats.
“Middle school students are young teenage students who are going through puberty, they are talking about things, they are watching things on their cell phone that young elementary school students do not need to be exposed to,” she said.
The children involved were attending Surf City Elementary and Surf City Middle School. When schools share a campus as these schools do, students from both campuses are allowed to ride the same bus. In these situations, it is generally recommended that older students sit in the back of the bus and younger students sit in the front, but there was no policy requiring that last year.
“Prior to this school year, common practice was to have older students in the back of the bus and younger students in the front,” Pender County Schools Superintendent Steven Hill confirmed. “This school year, PCS transportation training and manuals include the following guideline: ‘Students are to be divided by grade level for elementary and middle.’”
The situation with middle schoolers sharing a bus with elementary students is not unique to the Surf City campus. They have eight shared campuses within the school district, and students from all of those elementary and middle schools also share buses to and from school. Pender County Schools says this has been their practice for decades for efficiency and funding reasons.
While the policy issues bothered her, the mother says it was the lack of communication from the school system and apparent lack of knowledge regarding what they could and could not tell her that caused her to become so frustrated she ultimately called the media. She said she could not get answers to questions about what exactly happened to her daughter, or what was being done to prevent this from happening again. Adding to her frustration, she says she was told she could not see school bus surveillance video of the abuse in question.
“The video does exist of these incidents, but I have been told by just about everybody involved that for privacy reasons I am not allowed to see the video,” the mother said, adding that it seemed absurd that she as the mother of a six-year-old victim would be excluded from seeing evidence to help her understand what happened. She said this is especially important because her daughter is too young to comprehend the sexual nature or significance of what happened to her.
“Part of me, I don’t want to see the video, but part of me wants to be able to gauge her reaction to what was being done to her, because that will allow me again as the parent to help her… the last person I want to have explain to me what happened to them is my daughter. I don’t want to have to ask my child what happened to her or re-victimized her in anyway. I was hoping that the adults involved in this case would do that. And I don’t feel like anybody did,” the mother told WECT.
Pender County Schools now says the mother is allowed to see the video, and Dr. Hill explained the possible source of the confusion over that particular issue:
“As part of PCS’s investigation, PCS staff reviewed 30 days of bus video. All information reviewed and gathered as a part of PCS’s investigation was also shared with law enforcement at their request. Law enforcement agencies have different requirements than public schools for student investigations. This is where we believe there was confusion about viewing the student related video. North Carolina Public Schools are allowed to show video to parents/guardians of students directly involved in an investigation, but are not permitted to share that information with parents/guardians of bystanders or other students not directly involved.”
After WECT contacted PCS to relay the concern that the mother felt she’d been prohibited from seeing the video, they reached out to her to let her know she could see it. The mother credits the schools for immediately removing the boy who assaulted her daughter from the school bus and not allowing him to return to campus this year.
Still, she says their actions and poor communication had to be addressed for her daughter’s sake and to keep this from happening to another family in the future. PCS released a detailed statement defending their handling of the matter, and explaining what changes they have put in place.
Juvenile cases are sealed, but according to the six-year-old’s mother, the 13-year-old boy pleaded guilty over the summer to sexually assaulting her daughter. She was called to court last Friday to give a victim impact statement for the sentencing phase of his hearing. She said he will be placed on the sex offender registry until he is 21 years old, is prohibited from being around children who are younger than him, and is awaiting placement in a facility where he can receive sex offender therapy.
The six-year-old was not the only victim in this case, although the incident with her was apparently the most severe. The parent of a seven-year-old child on the bus assaulted by the 13-year-old also contacted WECT with concerns over the way the school system handled this matter.
They were extremely upset over the lack of communication and that an administrator at Surf City Elementary allegedly got upset that their daughter told other students what happened on the bus.
“[The administrator] said that her concerns were that my child had told some other students and teacher in class, and she wanted to know if she could talk to my daughter to tell her to keep that to herself so that the children did not go home and tell their parents and cause a commotion over it,” the second parent explained. She was furious that the primary concern was not what had happened, but that other parents might find out. The mother added the schools had never contacted her to let her know her daughter had been assaulted, and that she found out about it from another parent and a police detective who took over the case.
In response to the concerns from the parent of the seven-year-old, PCS said that what that child said in class was interpreted to be about the assault on the six-year-old student. At that point, before reviewing the video footage from the bus, administrators were only aware of one victim. A school spokesperson said they asked the seven-year-old to be quiet to protect the privacy of the six-year-old victim, not to try to keep her from talking about what happened to her or to keep others from finding out about the school bus assaults.
They added that they are continuing to work on additional initiatives to improve student safety on their buses.
“PCS empathizes with anyone traumatized by an assault and is always working to provide a safer environment. Please know that we will continue to work with [this] family and other stakeholders to make Pender the safest and most productive education system in North Carolina,” Dr. Hill said.