NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A federal investigation is underway to determine whether the civil rights of a student were violated. Allegations have been made that the New Hanover County school system not only failed to protect a student after she was sexually assaulted, but that the school harassed and retaliated against the student and her family for pursuing the issue.
This federal investigation, conducted by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), is the latest chapter in a story that stretches more than two years, which may constitute numerous Title IX violations.
The original crime
In late March of 2015, Sarah Johnson was sexually assaulted by a close family friend who also went to school with her at John T. Hoggard High School.
The story of the assault is complicated unto itself. The assailant had been taken into the family by Sarah’s father, Randy Johnson. According to Johnson, he had met the assailant’s stepfather while working at a correctional facility; the assailant’s stepfather, facing serious jail time, eventually asked Johnson to watch after his stepson. For almost a decade, that’s what Johnson did.
The assailant’s mother and sister became close with the Johnsons, a sort of blended family. The assailant befriended Johnson’s son Xavier – who would go on to be a star athlete at Hoggard before joining the Marines – and the two became inseparable on the field and off.
All of this changed after the assault.
But, as Sarah Johnson said, though the sexual battery she endured was terrible, the boy who assaulted her is not the only wrongdoer of her story
“Yes, it (expletive) me up. I was … hysterical. I would cry, beg not to go to school so I wouldn’t have to see him,” she said. “But what the school did – and didn’t do – that made things way worse.”
The school’s actions – and inactions – described and documented by the Johnson family, would allegedly go on for the next two years
Allegations of negligence
In the days that followed the assault, Sarah Johnson would ultimately be diagnosed with PTSD and depressive episodes. Even as a criminal investigation was underway, Sarah shared the hallways and courtyards at Hoggard with her attacker; her brother Xavier – who knew about the incident – shared a classroom with the boy who had sexually assaulted his sister.
On April 6, Randy Johnson contacted Hoggard to notify them of the assault on his daughter. According to Johnson, the school would not meet with him. This despite the explicit guidelines of Title IX, which state “once you tell your school about an incident of sexual violence, you have the right to receive some immediate help,” as well as “Your school must protect you as necessary, even before it completes any investigation. Your school should start doing this promptly once the incident is reported.”
Two weeks later, the boy who had assaulted Sarah Johnson turned himself in. He was charged with the sexual battery of Johnson and released on $5,000 bond. As part of his release order, he was ordered to have no contact with Sarah Johnson or her family. Johnson said he again contacted the school and was again rebuffed.
Sarah Johnson’s assailant appeared in court on May 5. Two days later, the New Hanover School system finally responded to Johnson, sending a letter saying it would not take any action, including the type of investigation mandated by Title IX (the first bullet point of the OCR guidelines includes the “right to have your school investigate what happened”). In the May 7 letter, the school suggests that “if Sarah feels unsafe and would like to apply to go to another school, she may do so.”
Randy Johnson said he was in shock.
“I contacted the school but they claimed their paths through the school didn’t overlap,” Johnson said. “They said they would provide a route for my daughter to move from class to class, to avoid (her assailant). My daughter, the victim, had to go out of her way. Not him. That shocked me. Are you kidding me? Are you serious? It wasn’t right.”
Sarah Johnson said she felt like she was being blamed for a crime committed against her.
“That’s what I’m talking about, that’s victim shaming, that’s putting the responsibility for the problem on the victim, that’s the kind of (expletive) they tried to pull,” Sarah Johnson said. “At the time, it was giving me panic attacks, making me feel sick. Now I can see clearer. Now it makes me angry.”
A week later, on May 15, Sarah Johnson returned to court and got a restraining order compelling her assailant to “actively avoid” her. Once the restraining order was awarded, Randy Johnson said he contacted Hoggard again, but the school still took no action.
Finally, at the end of the semester in early June, Hoggard provided Sarah Johnson with a “route map,” instructions on how to enter and exit the school building so that she could to avoid her assailant. Title IX clearly states that any such guidelines provided for students in Sarah’s position – “such as changing classes, dorms, or transportation” – should “minimize the burden” on the victim; it’s a guideline Sarah Johnson said the school clearly disregarded.
“Two months of panic attacks and trying to hold myself together,” Sarah Johnson said. “Two months and then they tell me how to avoid him, I had a restraining order against him, but I was the one forced out of my way to avoid him.”
On July 2, Sarah Johnson’s assailant went to court. He pleaded guilty to sexual battery and received a deferred prosecution to avoid having to register as a sexual offender (sexual battery includes mandatory registration as part of the North Carolina general statutes). As part of the plea deal, he was required to leave Hoggard and was banned from participating in any event where Hoggard students would be involved.
Satisfied that his daughter would never have to run into her attacker again, Randy Johnson said his family reluctantly accepted the deal.
Allegations of ‘victim shaming’
Something Johnson couldn’t accept, he said, was that Hoggard Football Coach Craig Underwood had appeared with the defendant as a character witness.
“I knew there was something wrong, right there, man. When a coach and a teacher, an employee of the school system, shows up, in court, to support the attacker, with the victim sitting right there, something is wrong,” Johnson said.
Coach Underwood had also allegedly addressed the Hoggard football team to explain why one of their players was leaving. Randy and Sarah Johnson allege that, during that speech, Underwood leveled blame on “both students,” blaming Sarah Johnson – at least in part – for her own sexual assault.
The exact nature of what Underwood said to the Hoggard football team is unknown. However, a letter acquired by Port City Daily, written by the assailant to Coach Underwood, seemed to support the Johnsons’ allegations. The letter thanked Underwood for “everything you did for me while I was at Hoggard” and then explicitly asked Underwood to reverse his statement that “what happened was both my fault and Ms. Johnson’s fault,” in front of the Hoggard football team.
Underwood did not returns calls or emails seeking information. Requests for contact through the school were referred to the public information officer.
When Randy Johnson heard about Underwood’s comments, he said he went to Hoggard and asked for a meeting with Athletic Director Scott Braswell, Principal Dr. Steve Sullivan and Underwood. After leaving, Johnson said he received a call from Braswell. According to Johnson, Braswell said he was aware of the Underwood incident and that it would be dealt with. Johnson got another call, this time from his supervisor at work, saying Assistant Superintendent Rick Holliday had contacted Johnson’s employer, claiming Johnson threatened Hoggard staff.
There is currently a crowdfunding effort to help Sarah Johnson and her family. You can find more information here.
Allegations of harassment
Meanwhile, just days after his July 2 court appearance, Sarah Johnson’s assailant was participating in pre-season training at Eugene Ashley High School. According to Randy Johnson, Ashley Athletic Director Roy Turner was aware of his new athlete’s court-mandated restrictions, and informed the Johnson family that the student would not play in the summer’s BB&T Football Jamboree – where Hoggard students would be in attendance – because of possible conflicts.
However, two weeks later on July 18, Sarah Johnson’s assailant attended the East Coast Invitational, a basketball tournament in Jacksonville. Xavier Johnson was also there, as was his sister, Sarah. Not only did Sarah’s attacker participate in the tournament, despite the two-week old court order forbidding him to do so, but Sarah Johnson said she ended up confined to a bathroom.
“You explain that to me,” Sarah Johnson said. “He shows up, he gets to play, I end up locked in the bathroom.”
Randy and Sarah Johnson claim that event organizers became aware of the legal ramifications of having Sarah and her assailant at the same event, and placed Sarah in the bathroom until they could figure out a way to get the other student out of the building. Sarah also recalled being forced to use the building’s rear exit – “by the dumpsters,” as Sarah Johnson said – while her assailant was allowed to use the main entrance.
Wells Gulledge, the director of the tournament, confirmed that Sarah Johnson was temporarily held in a bathroom while organizers removed her assailant. According to Gulledge, by the time he heard about the incident, one student had already left.
“It was handled poorly by pretty much everyone by the time it got to me,” Gulledge said. Gulledge added that the Johnson family – who had paid to attend – were offered a full refund, but felt that the tournament was not responsible for the misunderstanding.
“You have to understand, though, there are thousands of fans, hundreds of students,” Gulledge added. “It’s like you’ve got a really crowded Walmart, and you just happen to have one person over there in the freezer section, and someone else way over in the toys section, and one of them happens to have a legal issue.”
According to Johnson, he went to Ashley High School to ask about the incident. He received no answers, and the school filed a notice to ban him from Ashley property in an email from Wayne Bullard, general counsel for the New Hanover Board of Education. The same email claimed that Sarah Johnson’s assailant had “checked with his probation officer prior to going to the tournament and the probation officer told him it was okay.”
The administration at Ashley declined to comment; no explanation was given for why a probation officer was allowed to act on behalf of the school, or override the conditions of the deferred prosecution and Sarah Johnson’s restraining order.
That fall, Sarah Johnson said she returned to Hoggard, but suffered from anxiety attacks and depression. Sarah Johnson medically withdrew from school and enrolled online. Frustrated with what he described as an “utter lack of care” and “unwillingness to meet” on the part of the school, Randy Johnson filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
Then, toward the end of the year, the Johnson family said that they received a notice from the DMV that Sarah’s student license had been suspended. Sarah Johnson discovered she had been “taken out of the system,” despite the fact that she had been continuing her education through online classes.
“I was driving around with a suspended license, until I got the letter from the DMV. I had no idea,” Sarah Johnson said. “I found out I couldn’t register for prom. Like they tried to just quietly get rid of me.”
Emails between the Johnson family and the school show Hoggard officials had reported Sarah as a “drop out,” Randy Johnson said. The Johnson family, after several conversations, were able to get Sarah’s license re-instated; Hoggard gave no reason for the mistaken suspension, according to Johnson.
When Sarah Johnson returned to school for her senior year after completing summer school coursework, she was assigned a junior homeroom. According to an email to Sarah Johnson from Leigh-Ann Ahrenberg, a counselor at Hoggard, the school had not updated her credits after summer school. (The same email also mentions, in passing, that Hoggard would be assigning Sarah Johnson to a new counselor, something Sarah said she found upsetting, since she would “have to go through the whole thing with a new counselor, again.”)
The current investigation
A final incident, which occurred at the end of 2016, led Randy Johnson to file a second complaint with the Department of Education, one that triggered the current active investigation.
At a basketball game between Cape Fear Academy (where Randy Johnson coached) and Ashley, Micah Hendrix, Ashley High School assistant coach, alleged that Johnson called him a homophobic slur. Hendrix complained to Johnson’s employers and filed an assault claim to the Sheriff’s Office, claiming he suffered PTSD from Johnson’s verbal assault.
This became a complicated issue because Randy Johnson – as documents acquired by Port City Daily state – was employed by the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, which meant an Internal Affairs investigation was required.
According to reports from the county’s Internal Affairs division, Hendrix himself was unable to recall the incident when interviewed by investigators and he declined to comment on his own allegations. Johnson was cleared of any wrongdoing.
As part of a complaint filed to the Depart of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, Johnson included Hendrix’s complaint as a “retaliation” for his persistent attempts to get the school to acknowledge his daughter’s ongoing suffering and do something about it.
Most of Johnson’s claims were dismissed because they had taken place more than the statutory 180 days before he filed the complaint. But Hendrix’s allegations, seen as potential retaliation, were recent.
The Department of Education confirmed in an email that there was an open investigation into the New Hanover County school system for “potential retaliation” against the Johnson family.
Randy Johson said, “we teach our children that bullying in school is wrong. But what do you do when the school is the bully?”
NHC Superintendent Tim Markley and Rick Holliday both said they were unable to discuss any issues involving students. According to Holliday, the county’s Title IX coordinator, the school did everything necessary as required by federal law. He said the county’s “bully specialist” is assigned to look into any possible harassment – including the type alleged by Sarah Johnson about Underwood’s speech to the football team – but reiterated the statement from Wayne Bullard’s letter to the Johnson family: without a criminal prosecution, the school is not required to investigate.
Holliday largely dismissed the notion that a Title IX complaint would be valid, since Title IX, in his view, was concerned with “access to education based on gender.” However, Title IX clearly states sexual violence and its repercussions impede access to education. It further states that “criminal investigation does not relieve (a) school of its duty under Title IX to respond promptly and effectively.”
Read what the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights says about sexual assault and Title IX
When asked pointedly about the preponderance of evidence – including a confession made by Sarah Johnson’s assailant to a NHC Sheriff’s detective, pending criminal charges, and the “conditions of release” that barred contact between Sarah and her assailant – Holliday declined to comment. When asked if, in general, such evidence would put the onus on the school system to investigate further, Holliday said he believed the school would act appropriately given the information they had.
“It’s not over.”
Sarah Johnson’s assailant has since graduated – as she will this week – but she said she does not feel like the incident is over. She acquired another restraining order against her assailant, who still has family in Wilmington, on May 5. But that’s not the main reason she wants to tell her story, she said.
“In some ways, what happened two years ago, as much as it hurt me, it also made me stronger,” Sarah Johnson said. “I’m sure some people will say, ‘it’s over.’ But I can say, ‘it’s not over.'”
For Sarah Johnson, the biggest concern is no longer herself, but for other young women in her situation.
“Something horrible happened to me. But what the school did, and what they failed to do, re-victimized me every day, it compounded what I went through a thousand times. But the worst part, for me, is the other girls, who have been molested, who have been raped and assaulted, who have said nothing,” she said. “The girls who have had this happen to them and who have not come forward, and who say, ‘well, look what happened to you.’ That’s the worst … that’s the worst thing in the world.”
There is currently a crowdfunding effort to help Sarah Johnson and her family. You can find more information here.
Benjamin Schachtman can be reached at email@example.com, @pcdben on twitter, and (910) 538-2001.