A Question of Rape

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

And there's another, broader question raised by the case of Deirdre: why only a small percentage of sexual assaults are reported, especially by teenagers. According to the American Medical Association, 61 percent of all female rape victims are under 18, and very few report the crime. Cassandra Thomas, who directs the rape crisis program at the Houston Area Women's Center, says that in the past year, 246 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17 have sought assistance from the agency. Few went to the authorities.

"We see lots of teenagers," Thomas says. "Most of them have not been involved in the criminal justice process."

What happened to Deirdre may be part of the problem. As is so often true with charges of sexual assault, sorting absolute truth from fiction in Deirdre's case is impossible when so many conflicting statements are on the record. But as is also true, even when the evidence is inconclusive, adults very much want to believe that such acts can't happen in their community, can't happen in their schools, can't happen to their kids. And when that's the case, the accuser often becomes the accused.

Lit cigarettes dangling from their mouths, Hannah and Bob Shirley sit hunched over the conference table in the squat building that houses their printing business in the Greenway Plaza area. Also present is Deirdre's father, Donnie, so soft-spoken he's often barely audible. He's actually Deirdre's stepfather, but he's raised her with her mother since she was an infant. She calls Donnie "daddy."

The three sift through reams of paper, Jersey Village High yearbooks and odds and ends that constitute the evidence in what they believe is a clear case of sexual assault, tossing out a jumble of observations. As he picks apart the reasons the police officer and District Attorney's Office gave for rejecting the charges, a cool anger seems to magnify Donnie's faint volume.

"They never," he says, "took into account she's been raped, embarrassed, humiliated and scared."

In particular, Donnie (Deirdre's parents asked that they not be identified by their last name) is referring to an inconsistency he says the authorities found especially significant: that Deirdre, when first asked by school officials if she knew the boy who she claimed had assaulted her, said no. After her parents arrived, she told them that she in fact recognized the boy, but didn't know him beyond a few brief, chance encounters at school with friends. This initial "lie" apparently impeached her credibility.

So did the testimony of several witnesses who said the boy and the girl knew each other more intimately than she had acknowledged, including the allegation they'd had sex in the stairwell on October 28.

"We had several sworn statements from individuals ranging from students to school personnel that there had been misinformation given by the young lady," says Elizabeth Godwin, who heads the juvenile division of the D.A.'s office.

The Shirleys and Donnie rebut each piece of testimony. One witness says she overheard Deirdre engaged with someone in the girls' restroom during sixth period, but even the accused stated that the incident happened in the boys' room. Why the discrepancy, they ask? And how could another witness have seen the pair having sex, they want to know, when the report Texas Children's Hospital prepared after the alleged rape indicates Deirdre is still a virgin? Deirdre's parents and their supporters also question whether any of the witnesses were given polygraph tests, a commonly used tool in such cases. (Jersey Village policeman Connor won't say.)

The hospital report also noted three "small, superficial excoriations" on Deirdre's vagina. While not conclusive one way or the other, says Sherry Bryan, a sexual assault nurse examiner who reviewed the report, "the excoriations would be consistent with having unconsensual sex."

Still, none of the information proves Deirdre's claim. After Donnie brought the matter of his daughter's virginity to Godwin, for example, the assistant D.A. told him the girl had been seen having oral sex, though Godwin hadn't mentioned that previously. But more troubling to the girl's supporters than the lack of weight of the evidence against her story is the way the matter has been handled.

To their knowledge, Connor never looked for anyone who might back up the girl's version of events, including Dyesha Harris, the friend who convinced Deirdre to report the assault in the first place. Nor has anyone postulated a good reason why she would have cried rape if the act had been consensual, though Connor says he has one. "Sure I do," he says, "but I don't think that's appropriate for me to offer out conjecture on an investigation."

It's also not appropriate for police or school officials to comment on the boy's background for confidentiality reasons, but there are some indications that it may be relevant. Two girls who took classes with the boy at Cook Junior High describe him as disruptive and uncontrollable. One says he once threw a desk in anger. The other says he often made graphic, obscenity-laced sexual remarks to her, to the point where she would skip class just to avoid him.

"Sometimes I would say, 'Leave me alone,' and he would," she recalls. "But other times he would keep on saying those things." (The Press was unable to contact the boy or his mother.)

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