Thursday, October 6, 2022

One student spoke up. It’s changing how New Hanover County schools treat sexual assault

WILMINGTON — There’s a change underway in New Hanover County schools, as principals and other administrative staff are now being trained to take sexual assault and harassment much more seriously.

The changes focus specifically on how the schools live up to the requirements of Title IX, a federal law that mandates what schools must do in order to protect the victims of assault and harassment. But the change that’s happening now didn’t come from the federal government or the courts – although there are at least two federal investigations into Title IX violations at New Hanover County schools (NHCS).

Instead, the change was made possible by one former Hoggard High School student, whose story exposed what appeared to be severe failures in Title IX enforcement.

Sarah Johnson’s story

Hoggard High School and the New Hanover County School system have been accused of failures to protect a student's Title IX rights. The problem may be more widespread than one student. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
Hoggard High School and the New Hanover County School system have been accused of failures to protect a student’s Title IX rights. The problem may be more widespread than one student. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

Two years ago, Sarah Johnson – then a sophomore – was sexually assaulted by a fellow Hoggard student. In the wake of her assault, the perpetrator admitted to the crime and received deferred prosecution. As part of the court’s finding, the perpetrator was ordered not to have any contact with Johnson or her family.

In addition to the court-ordered no-contact order, Johnson’s parents also successfully obtained a protective order, forbidding the perpetrator from coming into contact with their daughter.

In spite of this, NHCS Deputy Superintendent and Title IX Coordinator Dr. Rick Holliday refused to take action, and did not remove the perpetrator from Hoggard. Instead, NHCS Attorney Wayne Bullard wrote the Johnson family a letter stating “if Sarah feels unsafe and would like to apply to go to another school, she may do so.”

According to the Johnson family, minutes of meeting with Hoggard Principal Dr. Steve Sullivan show that it was suggested that Sarah Johnson, not the perpetrator, could transfer to J.C. Roe — the county’s school for students with behavioral and academic problems.

This was just the beginning in a series of incidents – which include allegations that NHCS faculty and staff neglected, victim-shamed, and harassed Sarah Johnson. These allegations have launched two separate investigations by the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Read the full version of Sarah’s story, including details on the allegations and ensuing federal investigations:  She was sexually assaulted. She says what her school did next was worse

For Sarah Johnson, the actions by NHCS far outweighed those of her assailant.

“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,” Sarah Johnson 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.”

CLICK/TAP TO ENLARGE. Nine things to know about Title IX, courtesy of Know Your IX. According to allegations, New Hanover County Schools failed in several ways to protect a student's Title IX rights. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY KNOW YOUR IX)
CLICK/TAP TO ENLARGE. Nine things to know about Title IX, courtesy of Know Your IX. According to allegations, New Hanover County Schools failed in several ways to protect a student’s Title IX rights. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY KNOW YOUR IX)

A call to action

According to Emily Turner, supervisor of Coastal Horizon’s Rape Crisis Center (RCC), when Sarah Johnson’s story was finally told, it presented compelling evidence that something was wrong in the New Hanover County Schools.

Turner said that, for some time, counselors and staff from the Rape Crisis Center had been concerned about the way Title IX issues were handled at NHCS.

Part of that concern came from sheer numbers. According to Turner, the RCC served 131 teens last year for varying kinds of sexual harassment and assault; it’s a seemingly high number, but not uncommon, Turner said, and while not all of those teenagers experienced Title IX situations like Sarah Johnson’s, some likely did.

However, as Sarah Johnson lamented, none of these students had come forward about how the schools had handled their situations. Turner explained that may be due in part to a range of factors that makes talking about sexual assault and harassment very difficult for teenagers.

Read what the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights says about sexual assault and Title IX

“Teens experience abuse and harassment at extremely high rates and have many barriers in seeking services. Some are fearful their parents will find out what happened to them, some are fearful they could get in trouble, particularly if drugs and alcohol were involved at the time, some fear that they will have to report to law enforcement or become involved with DSS. Some may not know what their rights and options are as far as reporting, medical attention, and Title IX,” Turner said.

Without students to come forward, issues with Title IX enforcement remained murky. But for Turner, there was a key part of Johnson’s story that made the issue clear.

When Johnson’s perpetrator was finally moved to Ashley High School, several months after the assault, Hoggard Coach Craig Underwood allegedly addressed his team to explain why they were losing a player. In doing so, Underwood laid blame on both Sarah Johnson and the student who assaulted her, a student Underwood had appeared in court with as a character witness.

In a letter to Coach Underwood, Johnson’s assailant expressed dismay at Underwood’s statement and took full responsibility for the attack and his subsequent removal from Hoggard.

That part of the story shook the staff at RCC, Turner said.

“After everything that happened, when the perpetrator comes to the defense of the victim, and the school is still treating her this way — it couldn’t be laid out any plainer, something is wrong,” Turner said.

The Rape Crisis Center reached out to Holliday to offer assistance in making sure that what happened to Sarah Johnson – who should have been protected by Title IX – would not be repeated. In the past, the center had experienced some resistance to similar efforts. But Sarah Johnson’s story had made it clear change was needed; Turner said Holliday quickly accepted RCC’s offer.

“Sarah Johnson’s willingness to come forward and share her story is what gave us the opportunity and the platform to reach out to NHCS and offer our support and assistance so that they could improve their response to Title IX. The NHCS were very receptive to receiving outside assistance from the help of UNCW and the RCC largely because of Sarah’s bravery and willingness to share her experience,” Turner said.

Making changes

Turner said Holliday initially scheduled a 20-minute session with staff from RCC who were joined by Amber L. Resetar, UNCW’s Title IX compliance director. Resetar said she presented an overview of Title IX issues to principals and administrative staff.

But it would take a lot more than 20 minutes to bring NHCS up to speed.

“I would take a whole day, maybe two, to discuss all the aspects of it,” Turner said.

According to Turner, the main issue was a lack of education.

“After everything that happened, when the perpetrator comes to the defense of the victim, and the school is still treating her this way — it couldn’t be laid out any plainer, something is wrong.” Emily Turner.

“A lot of people just don’t know what Title IX is. If anything, they think it’s about sports. So, we’re happy to have the opportunity to help educate faculty and staff on what Title IX means, and how it helps protect students,” Turner said.

The work will continue, Turner said, adding that NHCS is now participating in a Sexual Violence Prevention Task Force to continue to education and support, for both Title IX issues and preventing sexual assault.

Turner said at present, RCC has a very small footprint inside schools. But she hopes that will change.

“A flier in the women’s bathroom isn’t enough, there should be one in the men’s room too,” Turned said.

“I would love to have more of a presence in the schools so that students see our fliers and have access to our information should they need to contact us. Knowledge is power and many students do not know that we are a resource to them or what their options are if they experience abuse and harassment,” Turner said. “We want students to be aware that there are confidential services available to them and that they will believed and supported if they choose to come forward and share their experiences.”

NHCS Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley and Holliday did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails about the Title IX training. Administrative Assistant Kelly Baugher could not provide a reason for their lack of response, saying only “there is no comment at this time.”


If you or someone you know is in crisis due to sexual assault or abuse, call (910) 392-7460 or email supportrcc@coastalhorizons.org to speak with a counselor. Information about the Rape Crisis Center is available here. There are several resources covering Title IX protection for the victims of sexual harassment, including Title IX For Survivors and Know Your IX. 

Also, there is currently a crowdfunding effort to help Sarah Johnson and her family handle the legal and medical costs of their experience. You can find more information here.


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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