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.

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.

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.)

Several days after the incident, Connor held a meeting with Deirdre, her parents and an assistant principal at the Jersey Village police station. During the meeting, according to Deirdre's parents, Connor yelled at the girl, told her he didn't believe her story and that she could be prosecuted for perjury if she were lying. The girl's parents both claim that Connor told them point-blank that he "wasn't in [Deirdre's] corner."

"I couldn't believe he was doing it," says Donnie.
Connor would not comment on the specifics of the meeting, but he did touch delicately on the subject of truth-telling.

"In investigations in general, and this is a general statement, whether it be any individual that we might deal with out here, we deal with them on the basis of assuming that we're getting the truth from them," the officer says. "So if we find that that's been compromised, the possibility of perjury always exists in the system."

Connor allegedly made another comment that raised doubts of his fairness among those on the girl's side. According to Donnie and Sterlene Donahue of Justice for All, Connor told them -- on separate occasions -- that the boy admitted that Deirdre had said no but he thought she meant yes.

Asked to respond, Connor drops his no-comment stance.
"I don't have any recollection of making a statement of that nature," he says.

The town of Jersey Village is tucked into the junction of Beltway 8 and U.S. 290 like a softball in the webbing of an outfielder's mitt. To the north sit a smattering of modern subdivisions that form almost as impenetrable a barrier as the lanes of asphalt, giving the impression of a gated community without the guards.

Founded in 1956 on an old Jersey cattle dairy farm about 20 minutes northwest of the Loop, the town attracted middle-class families who wanted that suburban safety net and an easy commute. The majority of the houses are brick; even a number of the mailboxes are encased in bulky brick structures. With its own police department and healthy land values, Jersey Village likens itself to an outside-the-Loop West U. The houses may be less pricey, but the demographics are about the same -- all but a handful of families are white.

Jersey Village High School, part of the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, opened in 1972. Relatively modern by most standards, it's the second oldest high school in the district, which has undergone explosive growth the last 25 years. Like many suburban schools, Jersey Village boasts an expansive campus with ample parking lots and tree-dotted lawns, though with almost 2,700 students it still feels crowded when classes let out. Located in a little-traveled corner of town, the setting nevertheless has the idyllic feel of another age.

While many of the students hail from Jersey Village, the school also draws from surrounding subdivisions and older neighborhoods, some of them lower income. Jersey Village High today is well-integrated when compared to its surroundings, and by all reports racial tensions at the school are minimal. Still, says one former town employee, the attitudes of many of the residents toward people of color are anything but enlightened. "Black people are thought to be promiscuous," she says. "You would hear that from [residents]."

Both Deirdre and the boy she says assaulted her are black. Deirdre's supporters, especially her parents, say that this view factored into the willingness of authorities to believe their encounter was consensual. ("Jersey Village is very prejudiced," says Deirdre's mother Jackie, whose volatile temper contrasts sharply with her husband's more measured demeanor. "There's no ifs, ands or buts about it.")

As harmonious as the atmosphere on campus appears to be, the school is no more removed from the hazards of modern life than its inner-city counterparts. Ever mindful of ways to improve security, principal Allen Meek plans to install video surveillance cameras by year's end to monitor potential problem areas, as will the other Cy-Fair high schools.

"We're lucky that we do live in a nice, quiet community," says Meek, a bearish man with a full beard and an academic manner. "And people don't come into this area, because we're not on the main thoroughfare. But in society today, when you have 2,800 human beings in any setting -- any setting, I don't care if you're talking about a church -- you'll have a small percentage of that group that are going to do things and make mistakes."

What sort of things and mistakes?
"There will be sexual encounters," says Meek, alluding to the recent incident. "There will probably be a little theft. There will probably be all sorts of things that happen in the real world, regardless of where you are."

Even rape, though Cy-Fair ISD spokeswoman Donna Shrake says she can't recall a single instance of a reported sexual assault in any of the district's schools during her entire career.

"I've been with the district 22 years, and I've never heard of it," Shrake says.

Shrake has forgotten at least one incident -- in 1991, a Jersey Village High sophomore was arrested and charged with raping another student in a school stairwell, an episode that made its way into the Chronicle. The victim reported the rape three days after it occurred at the urging of a counselor. Shrake says the district has no record of the case.

That incident notwithstanding, "reported rape" is an oxymoron in Cy-Fair schools. But that doesn't mean sexual assaults don't happen.

These days, it's not very hard to find high school or even junior high students who will say their friends have been sexually harassed or raped. At least one of those assaults occurred at Jersey Village High, according to a sophomore contacted by the Press, who says her friend was raped last year in the school parking lot. "She didn't say anything," the student says. "I told her to say something, but she wouldn't listen to me."

"I have several friends that have been raped," she continues quietly. "But they just don't say anything. I didn't even think rape was that common, till I got to high school."

Another sophomore, the girl who says she was harassed by Deirdre's alleged assailant while they were at Cook Junior High, counts off the number of her friends she says have been raped, stopping at six. Others, she says, have been hit or harassed by boys. She has her own stories to tell: Toward the end of her eighth grade year at Cook, a boy began touching and grabbing her "in different places" in the cafeteria at lunchtime. She would yell for help, she says, but nobody would intervene.

She, too, never reported the attacks, though she now wishes she had.
"I know it was a mistake," she says. "I have nightmares about it."

Like everyone else, Deirdre and her family followed the investigation of the incident on television. They saw principal Meek during his press conference subtly begin to shift the focus away from assault toward the consent angle. They watched the boy's mother accuse Deirdre of lying. And when Meek and Mike Connor announced after a week that the evidence showed the two students had been having consensual sex, Deirdre's parents also learned that the girl had been suspended for her role in the illicit activity.

That's not the way it's supposed to be. According to Cy-Fair district policy, schools are required to notify a parent or guardian of any suspension with both a letter and phone call. Deirdre's parents received neither.

Meek explains that both students were kept home under the policy of "emergency removal" pending the outcome of the investigation, and that once the facts were in "we ruled that [the interim] was sufficient enough punishment for any involvement in the situation, and [that she] was welcome back at that time."

But the rule regarding "emergency removal from campus" is no longer found in the Texas Education Code, the state rules that govern public schools. It's been replaced by two rules, "emergency expulsion" and "alternative placement," neither of which would apply to Deirdre.

Cassandra Thomas of the Houston Area Women's Center says that the punitive attitude and actions of school officials are one of the most common problems she encounters in rapes reported to the center by adolescent girls.

"We wonder why kids don't disclose [to authorities]," she says. "More often than not, they're penalized by school officials for putting themselves in the position of being victimized."

Not only did the school violate district and state procedures in addressing Deirdre's allegation, but in the six weeks following the incident, her family heard almost nothing from Jersey Village High. Shortly after the charges against the boy were rejected, two assistant principals called the parents to find out what their plans were, and if they were going to try to place Deirdre on homebound status, a temporary plan that provides a teacher in the home setting for students who are physically or emotionally incapable of attending classes. At one point, Hannah Shirley picked up a few of Deirdre's assignments at the school, but they were never turned in, and no one from the school inquired about them.

Not because they didn't try, says Meek.
"We have sent letters encouraging contact with the family to find out what their wants or wishes are, how we can provide services," the principal says, though he doesn't know if they were received. Meanwhile, he says, the school has been keeping track of her assignments and is ready to help get the girl's education back in gear. "Work has been assembled and gathered here," Meek says impatiently.

The day after the Press spoke with Meek, Deirdre's family received two calls from the school, one from Meek himself, and a day later a truant officer paid a visit to their house and spoke with Jackie, the girl's mother. The overtures were not well received.

"I point-blank said, 'You have done enough, we don't need you to do nothin' else for us,' " Deirdre's mother says, still seething.

The hallway buzz over the incident has faded at Jersey Village High, though kids still talk about it occasionally. The general impression, according to a number of students, is that the official version of events is essentially correct.

"The students have all told me the guy was actually supposedly her boyfriend," says sophomore Matt Borchers, one of only two students who agreed to let their names be used. "Pretty much everyone says they had decided to go into the bathroom that day to have sex."

Other versions of the story circulated, but with the same conclusion. "Some people were saying that she pretty much deserved what she got," says the sophomore who claims her friend was raped in the parking lot, and who also knows the boy Deirdre identified as her assailant, "because she said yes at first, and then she said no. Some people were saying that if you say yes at first, you can't say no afterward."

Deirdre may be fading from memory at school, but her supporters won't let the issue rest. Cynthia Calleo of Justice for All hopes the Jersey Village police or another law enforcement agency will reopen the case after she and others gather more evidence backing Deirdre's allegation. Short of that, Calleo may try to get a grand jury to issue an indictment.

If the boy ever has to face a judge, another case currently in the courts offers a suggestion of what his defense strategy might be: the accusation by a 13-year-old Brenham High School girl who says she was gang-raped by four boys at a party last summer. The girl waited five days before confiding in the wife of her camp youth minister. After the four boys were indicted by a Washington County grand jury, two accepted plea bargains and received deferred adjudications, but the case turned on its ear when another defendant went on the offensive, producing fellow students who testified that the girl had entrapped him, as well as explicit letters the girl wrote that named three of the four defendants.

The boy's indictment was quashed for technical reasons, and it now appears that all four cases will go back to a grand jury after attorneys for both sides argued successfully that the cases should be tossed -- the girl's parents arguing that the punishments resulting from the plea bargains were too lenient, and the defendants' parents contending that the new evidence should invalidate the charges. In addition, the prosecutor recused himself after the girl's parents alleged that he favored the defendants because of relationships with their friends and relatives.

If the cases go forward, it's clear what the defense strategy will be: Blame the victim.

But the girl has already been put through a trial of sorts. Her mother says that their home has been wrapped with toilet paper and egged since her daughter's allegation was made public. The girl has been vilified by graffiti in school restrooms and on tennis courts. At school, she's been surrounded by crowds of fellow students who've threatened to run her out of town.

In contrast to Deirdre's experience, the administration at Brenham High has been very supportive of the girl. Still, she regrets ever reporting the rape. "Do you know what she said?" asks her mother. "She said, 'If I know of anyone that this happens to, I wouldn't tell any of them to come forward. I'm marked.' "

At least she's still in school. The education of Deirdre has been on hold for six weeks. She spends her days watching television or playing with Donnie's godchildren. Even if she's accepted into the homebound program, it's unlikely she'll catch up enough to advance to tenth grade next year, which would be the second time she will have repeated a grade. Regardless, says her mother, Deirdre will never go back to Jersey Village High, or any school in the Cy-Fair district.

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