A Question of Rape

It couldn't happen inside a nice suburban school like Jersey Village High ... could it?

On October 29, just before the beginning of her sixth period social studies class at Jersey Village Senior High School, 15-year-old Deirdre headed for the restroom. Rather than use the lavatory on the first floor near her classroom, Deirdre would later tell a Jersey Village police investigator, she wandered upstairs, dawdling in the locker-lined hallways before heading into the girls' restroom on the second floor. In no hurry to get to class, she hung out and primped in front of the mirror a bit. After exiting the restroom, she took a quick drink at a water fountain, then proceeded around a corner toward a stairwell.

According to the account she later gave school authorities and police, as she made that turn Deirdre was accosted by a fellow student who told her she looked "sexy" and grabbed her by the arm, ignoring her protests. The boy told her he wanted to have sex with her in the boys' bathroom, Deirdre says. When she refused, he dragged her the few feet to the entrance of the bathroom and, once inside, shoved her into the handicapped stall and closed the door. Deirdre says she struggled to get away, but the boy managed to pull down her pants and shove her back on the toilet seat. As he tried to force his way into her, he ejaculated.

With a surge of adrenaline, Deirdre pushed the boy backward through the stall door, pulled up her pants and ran out into the hallway. As she escaped, the boy threatened to get her later. By then, the bell signaling the end of the period had rung.

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Shaken and crying, she made her way downstairs and encountered a friend, Dyesha Harris, who asked what was wrong. Nothing, she replied. Harris persisted, and finally cajoled the story outlined above from her friend. At Harris's urging, they went to the office and reported that Deirdre had been sexually assaulted. Deirdre's parents were called and arrived within half an hour. With the help of an assistant principal, she then identified the boy she claimed was her assailant. She was taken by ambulance to Texas Children's Hospital and was given the standard battery of tests and treatments administered in rape cases, which include anti-pregnancy and disease prevention medications.

Two days later, on Halloween, the school staged a press conference after several Houston television stations had gotten wind of Deirdre's allegation through anonymous tips. With a visible trace of discomfort, principal Allen Meek acknowledged that a girl had indeed accused a fellow student of sexual assault. An investigation was ongoing, he said. The two students had cut sixth period class, he continued, and the question of consent was being explored.

The next day, the consent theory was the focus of the television reports. The boy's mother insisted her son and the girl knew each other well and had a sexual relationship, and that her son -- who apparently lives with his grandmother -- was shocked by the charge. Another student claimed she'd heard Deirdre and an unidentified boy trysting in the girls' bathroom during sixth period. Still another claimed he'd previously seen the two having sex in a stairwell.

After a week, the school, the Jersey Village Police Department and the Harris County District Attorney's Office had reached the same general conclusion, based on the statements from students and school administrators -- Deirdre and the boy had been having illicit consensual sex during the class period. Both students had been suspended. The girl was lying. Case closed.

Mike Connor, the Jersey Village police officer who handled the case, won't discuss the details of his investigation into Deirdre's accusation. But he's satisfied justice has been served. "We've felt like we've taken the prudent steps we needed to take as far as investigating the complaint," he says.

Others aren't so sure. Deirdre's parents are livid at what they see as a cursory dismissal of her complaint by Connor and the school. Cynthia Calleo and Sterlene Donahue of the victims' rights group Justice for All are conducting their own investigation on behalf of the family. The employers of Deirdre's father, Bob and Hannah Shirley, are so outraged at the outcome that they've invested much of their free time the past month urging politicians, the district attorney, the state attorney general and whoever will listen to examine the case.

The 16-year-old boy whom Deirdre claims dragged her into the boys' room has since returned to school. But though the rolls at Jersey Village High School still show Deirdre (not her real name) as a member of the Class of 2000, she hasn't been to class or touched a book since she was carried into the ambulance on October 29.

A special education student described as "very slow" by her parents, Deirdre doesn't even have her books, which she left at school and which have apparently been lost. Her parents say that since the incident, she can't stand to be alone and requires constant supervision. And on more than one occasion, they say, she's awakened screaming from violent nightmares. "She doesn't want to go to sleep," says her mother.

The issues raised by Deirdre's case go well beyond who's telling the truth, though that question remains unresolved, despite the official pronouncements. There are the actions of the school officials, who in their apparent haste to clear the air of controversy violated district and state rules and generally abandoned Deirdre. And there are complaints by Deirdre's parents that officer Connor bullied their daughter at the police station and generally favored the accused from the outset of his investigation.

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