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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

‘Make sure this doesn’t happen to another student’: Former New Hanover County student tells her story

After an alleged sexual assault in 2014, the two students involved continued to ride the same school bus to the same school for years. (Port City Daily photo / FIle)
After an alleged sexual assault in 2014, the two students involved continued to ride the same school bus to the same school for years. (Port City Daily photo / FIle)

Former student says she went to same school, rode same bus, as her alleged sexual assailant for years, despite asking schools for help

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Five years ago a 7th-grade Murray Middle School student was allegedly sexually assaulted by a fellow student on a school bus. For years afterward, while dealing with the psychological repercussions of that assault, she would continue to ride the bus with her alleged assailant to the same school, even after her family repeatedly went to the school for help.

In the years leading up to the alleged assault, the family filed several complaints about bullying and harassment. In the years following the incident, the student would struggle with psychological issues and self-harm, and was hospitalized repeatedly. After returning from one hospitalization, she was sent to New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) J.C. Roe Center – the district’s behavioral adjustment school – before returning to once again ride the bus her alleged assailant for another year and a half until she graduated early from Ashley High School.

According to NHCS, “during the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years there were numerous meetings and communications between school staff and the student or her mother, including involvement of the school counselor and social worker. The school offered extensive services to assist the family and offered services from several outside agencies.”

And, while the two students continue to ride the bus together for years, NHCS spokesperson Valita Quattlebaum said, “a plan was put in place so the student and the boy she alleged assaulted her were separated on the school bus.”

However, it is not clear whether or not the school ever considered the alleged assault – and the years of sharing a bus and a school that followed – to be a Title IX concern. NHCS declined to answer whether it ever considered the situation to be a civil rights violation.

The family said they repeatedly reached out to Dr. Rick Holliday, NHCS’s Title IX director, but their calls were never returned. The family also said they filled out multiple hand-written reports. NHCS did not respond to questions about what happened to those complaints.

NHCS did note that “because of laws regarding the confidentiality of student records the New Hanover County Schools is limited in providing additional information. The New Hanover County Schools takes all allegations of bullying, sexual assault or harassment seriously and holds student safety as a top priority.”

Related: She was sexually assaulted. She says what her school did next was worse

The student’s mother, Tosh Longo, recently spoke out about her experiences with NHCS at a board meeting. Her daughter, Oceana, had wanted to speak, but found she wasn’t emotionally ready. While Oceana still hopes to speak publicly in the future, she agreed to share her story here in the hopes that, first, others in her position will feel less alone, and second, the NHCS Board of Education will take further action to prevent a story like hers from being repeated.

(Editor’s note: As a general policy, Port City Daily does not name minors in cases with criminal allegations, especially sexual assault. We received permission from both Tosh Longo and Oceana to use her real name. We have not included the name of the alleged assailant, a minor at the time, as no criminal charges were ever filed.)

Oceana’s story

Alleged assault

In the fall of 2013, Oceana was a 7th-grade student at Murray Middle School. It was her first full year in New Hanover County. She had made friends with a boy, a fellow student, but after a few months that friendship turned into bullying and harassment, according to Oceana. (NHCS confirmed that the family filed several complaints during that year.)

The harassment escalated, Oceana said.

“It continued until January, and then I’d had enough – I made a scene,” Oceana said, admitting that she struck the boy.

Then, in April of 2014, the boy sexually assaulted her, Oceana claims.

Oceana kept the incident to herself for almost a year, but it took a psychological toll. She struggled with anxiety and trust issues in the months that followed. Then, in February of 2015, Oceana said she tried to take her own life.

‘Coming out’

When EMT’s arrived on the scene, Oceana said she refused to be touched. When EMTs asked her why, she said she found herself telling them about the assault on the bus.

“I told them and then, I guess it was a good thing, because I realized I could tell my mom,” Oceana said, allowing her to explain why she had been withdrawn, or on edge, for months.

Oceana calls this moment “coming out.”

It was a tough conversation, Oceana said, but after explaining to her mother what had happened, the family notified both the school and the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO). According to Tosh and Oceana, the Murray Middle School School Resource Officer initially took their complaint and filed it as a “verbal assault,” until Tosh went back and appealed to another deputy.

The case was handled by Detective Amy Womble, who interviewed Oceana and the other student. According to both NHCS and NHCSO spokesperson Lt. Jerry Brewer, there was insufficient evidence to proceed with the case: camera footage from the bus had long since been recorded over and only Oceana’s word to go on, apparently.

“It had been a year,” Oceana said. “She basically said I waited too long.”

According to NHCSO, the family eventually decided not to press charges.

Title IX

During that time, Oceana was still riding the bus – the one she had allegedly been assaulted on – with the student who had assaulted her. She had no idea that Title IX might protect her from this.

“I didn’t know anything. For the longest time, I just thought it was something I was going to have to deal with. I didn’t learn about Title IX until I got into the hospital,” Oceana said.

Oceana said it was a psychiatrist at the hospital she visited in the spring of 2015 who pulled up information on Title IX on a computer. She’d barely heard of it before, and Tosh had only ever heard about it when it came to things like making sure girls’ sports teams had the same resources as boys’ teams.

After learning that Title IX provided much broader protection, Oceana and Tosh went to the school for help. The family went in person to the NHCS Administration building on Carolina Beach Road. They asked a secretary there how to file a Title IX complaint, and were given Dr. Holliday’s number. They also filled out a written report.

“We called no less than five times,” Oceana said. “We called and left messages with secretaries, or we got the secretaries and they gave us Dr. Holiday’s mailbox and we left messages. He never called us back, ever.”

According to Oceana and Tosh, this went on for three years, from February 2015 – Oceana’s last semester in middle school – through her sophomore year at Ashley High School. The family also tried to get help from their school counselor and from Murray Principal Patrick McCarty (who, coincidentally, also moved to Ashley High School).

“When I went to Ashley, so did he,” Oceana said, referring to the student she claimed assaulted her. “Every day, when I got on the bus, so did he.”

J.C. Roe

Over the summers, Oceana went away to a music school, where she said she felt at peace.

“I never had any problems there. I felt fine. I felt good, I was happy,” she said.

But over the next two years of school, Oceana said she struggled with the trauma of the assault and was hospitalized a few times. While she can now calmly recite the hospital names by heart – “Old Vineyard, Brynn Marr, Strategic” – at the time she said she was really suffering.

Halfway through her sophomore year at Ashley, Ocean was sent to Cherry Hospital, a state-run facility in Goldsboro. When she got out, Oceana was sent to J.C. Roe.

Oceana said she has mixed feelings about J.C. Roe. On the one hand, it was a respite from the daily bus rides with the boy – now a young man – who had assaulted her. And she was able to make the best of the opportunities to pursue her creative endeavors, although they were quite limited – an art class offered just once a week.

On the other hand, Oceana said she doesn’t think J.C. Roe was the right place to send her, or students who have been through similar situations.

“I don’t personally think kids coming from psychiatric facilities need to be placed with kids coming out of the juvenile [justice] system,” she said. “I don’t know why they can’t allow kids coming from psychiatric facilities to just go back to their schools and take an hour a day to see a counselor, that makes more sense to me.”

From Oceana’s perspective, a major struggle for students like her is trying to rebuild trust, the ability to be comfortable with interpersonal relationships. J.C. Roe, she said, was a difficult place to do that.

Moving on

When Oceana returned to Ashley her junior year, she was still going to the same school as her alleged assailant. But by now, Oceana said, she had received some quality psychological counseling.

Early on after “coming out” about the assault, Oceana said she had gone to Coastal Behavioral Services. After telling her counselor about her background, Oceana said the counselor dropped her case.

“At that time the woman I was working with, she was pregnant, and she said she couldn’t handle it because it was too much stress,” Oceana said.

But over the years since then, Oceana said she developed the skills to handle her trauma. More importantly, she said, she no longer wanted to be defined by victimhood.

“This happened, but what can I do to make sure it doesn’t consume the rest of my life,” she said.

Oceana moved out on her own, got a job, and set her sights on graduating early (which she did, last semester). She works with the Salvation Army and is a music instructor for young students. She has put a considerable amount of time and energy into putting the incident on the bus behind her.

Speaking out

But it’s not completely behind her, Ocean said. At least, not while she knows other students are going through what she’s been through herself.

“I know it’s happening. I know people it’s happening to right now,” Oceana said.

According to Oceana, she knew she needed to tell her story once she graduated. But it hasn’t been easy.

Tosh and Oceana first met with Port City Daily in early November of 2018, prior to the elections for the NHCS Board of Education. When the new board was seated and a new Title IX committee formed, Oceana and her family felt like their story might finally have an impact, whereas they felt in the past it had fallen on deaf ears.

But going public with a personal story – especially one like Oceana’s – can be a brand new trauma.

Recently, Tosh spoke before the NHCS board, but Oceana wasn’t ready.

“It hard, hard even for my mom to be there,” Oceana said. “My mom could barely make it through. There’s no way I could have. Even talking about going in front of the board it has brought back some of the things I haven’t had in a while. Feelings, nightmares. Even this interview,” Oceana said. “I do want to go in front of the board and tell my story. But I’m afraid… I’m afraid I won’t be able to speak at all.”

Still, Oceana plans on addressing the board in the future.

“That’s what I want to do with this whole story, by taking it to the board. I’m taking care of my life – I’m not asking for sympathy. I don’t want you to hear my story and pity me. I want you to hear me. I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to another student.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis due to sexual assault or abuse, call (910) 392-7460 or email 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. 

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

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