Title IX complaint announced for Gale-Bailey Elementary School incident

Parent Seth Heisserman speaks to the media on Wednesday about the alleged sexual assault incident that occurred at Gale-Bailey Elementary School last year after Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center Inc. Executive Director Kurt Wolfgang, right, announced that a Title IX civil rights complaint was filed against Charles County Public Schools. Also pictured with Heisserman are parents Tim Perrier and Senika Butler.

The legal counsel representing the parents of three young girls who were allegedly sexually assaulted by three male students during recess on Oct. 30 at Gale-Bailey Elementary School in Marbury announced Wednesday that a Title IX civil rights complaint has been filed against Charles County Public Schools for “flagrant disregard” to provide “a safe environment free from harassment and assault.”

During a press conference held outside of the Charles County Courthouse near Charles Street in La Plata, Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center Executive Director Kurt Wolfgang disclosed that the complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Justice “to investigate the violation by CCPS,” particularly regarding school officials’ failure to exercise “legal obligations” in terms of ensuring the “physical and emotional well-being of the victims,” according to a copy of the complaint.

“Since October 30, none of the three girls has been able to attend school because Charles County Public Schools refuses to remove the perpetrators from the school. These girls are traumatized and terrified, and will not return while the perpetrators are there,” said Wolfgang, noting that one of the boys threatened to kill a student-victim and her entire family for snitching on his friends. “We are gravely concerned that CCPS and its employees have violated their legal obligation to report complaints of sexual assault immediately to the proper authorities.”

Having been unsuccessful with initiating “requests for delinquency proceedings against all the boys involved, as well as requests for court orders against them to prevent further threats and harassment,” Wolfgang said the girls’ families believe they were “subjected to a cover-up and to an approach intended to wear them down.”

One parent claimed that they were never contacted about any counseling or alternative education plans for their daughter, according to Wolfgang, and another family resorted to home schooling after pulling all of their children out of the school system. The third student-victim is receiving minimal teaching assistance from the school in her home.

“The families of these three girls have decided to fight for their rights and the rights of all the children,” Wolfgang emphasized, “since the interests of Charles County Public Schools seem to lie elsewhere.”

“To this day, my daughter is still fearful about going to school. We talk to her periodically about getting her back in school but she is adamantly against it,” said Senika Butler, whose daughter received the death threat. “She doesn’t feel protected. She doesn’t feel safe. She’s now sleeping in the bed with mom and dad because she’s scared.”

The Maryland Independent previously reported in November that one of the perpetrators — whose name is being withheld due to his age — has since been charged as a juvenile with second-degree assault, fourth-degree sex offense and making a threat on school grounds. Former Gale-Bailey principal Verniece Rorie and vice principal Timothy Rosin were removed from the school following leadership changes initiated by CCPS Superintendent Kimberly Hill.

Seth Heisserman, a parent of one of the victims who withdrew all of his children from the school system, said school officials had every opportunity “to do what’s right” but failed to do so. Since coming forward, Heisserman said other parents have reached out to him with similar stories of their children being sexually abused and how the “school system tried to suppress” and “inadequately dealt with it.”

“It’s just repugnant,” Butler said. “It’s disgusting.”

Although he believes that school officials have good intentions and “trusts their hearts,” Heisserman said “sweeping reforms” are needed within the county’s public schools to rectify the problem. He doesn’t plan on re-enrolling his kids in the school system any time soon.

“We were just waiting on the school to do something. They never really offered any kind of counseling or any sort of help for the girls,” Heisserman told the Independent during a phone interview on Tuesday. “[Hill] never gave us any reassurance other than saying that ‘we take this seriously and you’ve got to let us deal with it.’ But she could never tell us what that meant or give any assurance that things were going to be different. Me and the other parents feel like anything we’ve ever got from Dr. Hill or [deputy superintendent] Amy Hollstein was empty rhetoric; just things they felt like they had to say.”

In an email sent to the Independent on Wednesday, CCPS said an initial response to the complaint was filed on Jan. 6 which “explained that the factual allegations set forth in the parents’ complaint are in dispute.” The statement went on to say that “the teachers who were supervising recess on the day in question vehemently deny observing or being made aware of any sexual assault while on the playground.”

Furthermore, school officials said “an investigation was initiated which, among other things, resulted in CCPS imposing discipline on several students and making efforts to separate the students involved.” However, the parents of the student-victims “were not satisfied” and opted to remove their children from Gale-Bailey, having also “demanded that the male students be removed from the school.”

“CCPS, however, is bound by the student discipline regulations promulgated by the Maryland State Department of Education, and it has a legal obligation to educate all of its students, even those who may engage in conduct which may warrant student discipline,” the statement noted. “Among other things, CCPS has offered to put specific measures in place that would ensure the boys and girls would be separated and have no contact with each other at school, or on the bus to and from school. Additionally, the school system has offered counseling for the girls as well as mediation between the families … that would be provided contingent on the parents’ agreement to participate.”

Wolfgang said the school system “doesn’t take into account the trauma that these girls experienced,” essentially putting them at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological issues.

“We’ve already seen the lack of accountability [with] the school system and I don’t see it changing,” said Tim Perrier, the father of another victim who also spoke at Wednesday’s press conference alongside Heisserman and Butler. “My daughter was out at a local restaurant this past week where she came in contact with one of the boys. She had an immediate breakdown and my wife had to take her out of that restaurant. The boy acted like he didn’t do anything wrong. But he knows what’s wrong; he knows what he did on Oct. 30.”

Perrier, who said his daughter has had a tough time since the incident, called for long-term consequences not just for the boys, but for the adults in the school system as well.

“It is a big step and puts a lot of burden on many people,” he said. “But the hope is that it will put the pressure on the school system to finally do what they needed to do on Oct. 30.”

Heisserman’s greatest hope in all of this is for reform to take place within CCPS. One of the things he said will have a “revolutionary effect” on the entire school system is by mandating counseling or other services for the boys and perpetrators alike to help “make those kids right.”

But because school officials have tried to cover up their own mistakes and failed to provide a safe environment for victims of sexual assault and harassment, Heisserman said, adding that he is convinced that Hill should relinquish her position as superintendent.

“To be honest, I wasn’t that way at first. I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt,” said Heisserman. “But the farther we get down this road, the clearer that answer is yes.”

Despite disagreeing about the underlying facts of the situation, CCPS said it “shares the parents’ goal of the girls returning to school” and has “made repeated good faith efforts of making it possible.”

“CCPS stands ready to work cooperatively … to achieve a mutually satisfactory resolution to this matter,” according to the statement, “and it will cooperate fully with the Department of Justice to accomplish this goal.”

Twitter: @JClink_MdINDY