Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Pender Schools under spotlight after sexual assault of 1st grader by 13-year-old boy on bus

A Pender County School bus near Maple Hill. Last spring, a 6-year-old student of Surf City Elementary was sexually assaulted on a PCS bus by a 13-year-old middle school student. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A Pender County School bus near Maple Hill. Last spring, a 6-year-old student of Surf City Elementary was sexually assaulted on a PCS bus by a 13-year-old middle school student. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

SURF CITY — A six-year-old girl enrolled at Surf City Elementary was sexually assaulted by a 13-year-old middle school student on a bus, sparking outrage from her mother who believes the county school system does not have the policies in place to address the issue. 

On Tuesday WECT’s Ann McAdams reported that the mother of the young victim was also angered by insufficient communication from Pender County Schools in the months after the incident, for its lack of knowledge of what it was allowed to communicate — including whether she could watch bus footage that led to the boy’s guilty plea over the summer — and for a failure to accept responsibility for its handling of the incident.

READ MORE: Mother upset with Pender County Schools after six-year-old sexually assaulted on school bus (WECT)

The boy allegedly abused the girl for several weeks before the incident, after which the girl told the bus driver that the middle schooler had put his hands inside her pants and hurt her, according to WECT. The assault was first reported on May 21.

A mother who addressed the PCS School Board during a meeting on September 10 said she was speaking on behalf of another parent who could not be in attendance, and expressed her disappointment in the school system and their “regards for the families involved.”

“Sexual assault by a middle school child of 13 years old on a 6-year-old child is not acceptable,” the mother told board members. “When does the school put the safety of the children first?”

Her husband also spoke at the meeting, saying he did not believe the criminal behavior of the boy had properly “escalated up to the point of the school board.”

“The incident that occurred — multiple incidents — came to light May 21,” he said. “There was a police investigation. There were several elementary girls who could have pressed charges who were approached by police. There were two who were willing to take a stand and press charges. There was a 13-year-old boy who was found guilty of two counts of sexual assault. And nothing has been done.”

He also said he has discussed the issue the Surf City Elementary assistant principal, the middle school principal, the PCS superintendent, members of the board of education, and the state superintendent.

“And we get a lot of fingers pointed everywhere else,” he said. “We’re told from the local school that it has to come from the county. The county says it’s handled by the local school. We tried to escalate it to the state superintendent, and he said everything’s held by the local school system. So all we get is a lot of spinning wheels and nothing at all is done.”

When asked what charges were brought against the boy, who was a student at Surf City Middle School at the time of the incident, a spokesperson for District Attorney Ben David’s Office said state law requires records of juvenile cases to be sealed.

Mother of second child speaks out

WECT also reported that a mother of a second child assaulted by the 13-year-old (although the nature of the assault was less severe), was frustrated with an administrator at Surf City Elementary who allegedly became upset after the child talked about the abuse with other children in her classroom. The administrator allegedly urged the mother to tell her daughter to avoid discussing the issue with fellow classmates, so they wouldn’t tell parents and cause a commotion, according to WECT.

The mother was angry that the administrator’s primary concern did not appear to be about the well being of her daughter, but instead “that other parents might find out,” according to WECT.

In response, PCS spokesperson Alex Riley confirmed that the second victim was sharing details about what occurred the previous day on the bus with other students in the classroom. The teacher then told school administration, and after speaking with the student’s parent and with parental consent, an administrator asked this student “not to discuss this very sensitive matter with other students,” according to Riley.

“At no point did the school administration tell the parent that its rationale was ‘to avoid causing frantic among other parents,’ or anything to that effect,” Riley said. 

He said the administration’s primary concern was to protect the privacy of the victim and prevent her from reliving the trauma of the incident, as well as to “guard other young students from hearing about this conduct.”

According to WECT, the mother of the second victim said she was never contacted by the school to inform her that her daughter had also been assaulted on the bus, but that she was instead informed by another parent.

“The school district did not learn of a second potential victim until after completing a review of school bus footage, which was also shared with law enforcement,” Riley said in response. “At the time that a second potential victim was identified, PCS was cooperating with law enforcement and law enforcement requested that it be the agency that contact the parents of the second potential victim.”

Addressing PCS policy

On Monday, a day before WECT published its story, PCS released a statement from Superintendent Steven Hill on its Facebook page that addressed McAdams’ request for comment on “an inappropriate conduct incident that occurred on a PCS bus.” 

According to Hill, PCS staff took actions within 15 minutes after the first victim reported the incident on May 21, which included notifying law enforcement. After a home visit to the suspect student’s residence the following afternoon, the 13-year-old was “removed from the student population and has since received consequences consistent with state and federal law and local board policy.”

When asked if the student was expelled, Riley said state and federal privacy laws prohibit PCS from answering that question.

Hill’s statement also outlined plans to create a district advisory committee and a volunteer ride-along bus monitor program. The creation of the volunteer committee is ongoing, nearly five months after the incident was first reported. When asked if this was an appropriate response time, Riley said PCS began exploring options to address parents’ concerns regarding busing immediately after the incident was reported.

PCS is working diligently to develop the volunteer ride-along program in compliance with legal requirements,” Riley said. “The volunteer ride-along program is one of many actions that PCS is taking to ensure the safety of all students who ride the bus. Additional safety measures were developed over the summer and in place for the start of the 2019-2020 school year.”

Such measures include training bus drivers to recognize student behaviors and how to request video reviews following suspicious activity; requiring seating charts to be submitted monthly instead of quarterly and for those charts to be divided by grade level; signage posted to buses listing bus rules, which include “keeping hands, feet, and legs to yourself;” and requiring administrators to ride routes randomly throughout the school year.

The largest policy concern held by the mother of the first victim was that children of varying ages are not only sharing buses but also sharing seats. Shared bus routes for the Surf City Elementary and Middle School campus began when the school opened in August 2018, and Riley said PCS used shared bus routes for several decades based on required efficiency metrics.

PCS currently operates eight different K-8 bus routes across the county. Riley said that although the state does not specify guidelines on how each school district should design its bus routes, transportation funding depends on route efficiency ratings determined by Transportation Information Management Systems (TIMS). These efficiency metrics are based on the number of students transported, the number of buses, how many miles are driven, and the amount of fuel used. 

Every year, our transportation department diligently works within TIMS to create optimal transportation patterns that maximize efficiency,” Riley said.

Riley said PCS would consider all options in the future, including separate bus rides for elementary and middle school students.

The father who spoke at the September meeting said he understood these financial constraints, but said there is no formal PCS policy dictating behavior on a school bus or ensuing consequences. In response, Riley pointed to PCS Policy 4300, which states that students must comply with the Code of Student Conduct on any bus or while waiting for any bus. 

But the policy does not specifically address sexual assault on a bus. Additionally, although Policy 4311 addresses assault between two students and ensuing consequences, it does not address sexual assault.


Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815

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