Laurie Laizure, of Manchester, likes to think she’s the kind of parent who’s engaged in what’s happening at her kids' schools.
Which is why she was so surprised to learn, when scrolling through Facebook last month, about a sexual assault that took place at Manchester West High School — in 2015. A 14-year-old student, a fellow classmate of her daughter's, was raped by an older student in a secluded hallway during school hours.
“Initially, my first reaction was, ‘Wait a minute, you’ve known for two years?’ And my daughter was a freshman at the same time this girl was a freshman,” Laizure recalled recently. “It’s really shocking that this could have happened in a high school, in a hallway. I mean, this is a violent crime.”
Even more troubling, she said, was the fact that parents like her had no idea anything like this happened on campus in the first place — because the school never told them. But as far as state law is concerned, the school didn’t have to.
Diana Fenton, an attorney for the Department of Education, says the New Hampshire Safe Schools Act requires districts to notify police within two days if certain kinds of violent crimes, including sexual assault, happen on school property. But the decision to send letters home to parents, to make an announcement or to otherwise let the school community know that such an incident happened at all – that’s up to each individual district.
“The statute is silent as to any obligation to report to the public or to the parents of the school community,” Fenton said. “This area of the law is very complicated, and there are various laws that govern, and it’s not just one law that school districts are responsible to.”
There are a lot of other state and federal laws that come into play in these cases. Some of them require schools to reports to child protective agencies. Others address how schools are supposed to handle internal discipline.
Schools in New Hampshire are asked to report the number of violent crimes and bullying incidents that take place on campus, including sexual assaults, in a given year – but those statistics are published on an annual basis, not as each individual incident occurs.
The federal gender equity law known as Title IX requires schools to keep track of how many incidents happen each year. The state collects this data, too, and for years published it as part of the district profiles available on the Department of Education’s website – but, in the last few years, the agency stopped publishing those statistics because, according to a staffer there, no one was asking for it.
Balancing the public’s right to know with a student’s right to privacy can be tricky. Advocates for survivors of sexual violence say there are good reasons why a black-and-white reporting requirement might not make sense because of the sensitive nature of these incidents.
“In the end, the victim’s privacy is most important – because it’s the only way to maintain control when the situation is out of control,” says Allison Power-Bernal, a prevention coordinator for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.
Even disclosing that an incident took place, without naming names, could compromise that privacy, Power-Bernal said – which is especially important when dealing with students under age 18. Instead, she said what’s most important is that the school takes care of the student affected – helping him or her report to police, and connecting them to other resources.
“Parents would know: Okay, our kids are safe because the right law enforcement agency’s been notified and the right crisis center’s been contacted,” Power-Bernal said. “And there’s really no need for the sensationalism of potentially putting the victim’s identity at risk.”
In a perfect world, Power-Bernal added, schools would already be taking proactive steps around these issues.
“For middle and high schools,” she said, “it’s talking about consent skills and healthy relationships and sexual assault awareness and bystander intervention.”
If you wanted an example of how another New Hampshire school handled a similar case, there’s this one from 2007: A 14-year-old student reported being sexually assaulted by a fellow 18-year-old student on school grounds; the incident was promptly referred to local police, and the accused student was charged .
But unlike what happened at West High more recently, within days, the principal in this case made an in-school announcement acknowledging that an incident took place and reassuring students there was no ongoing threat to their safety, according to local press reports at the time. School officials also held meetings to brief faculty on what happened.
The school, in this instance: Manchester Central High School, in the same district and just across town from West High.
Manchester Superintendent Bolgen Vargas wasn’t in charge of the district when either the 2007 or 2015 incidents happened – and while he wasn’t familiar with the specifics of the Central case, he said it sounded like a reasonable approach, compared to what happened at West.
“That’s a good example of a thing that could have applied to this situation,” Vargas said. “They did communicate it. They probably didn’t name any — the children involved were not listed. But there was some form of communication.”
Vargas said he understands why some parents might be upset at how the 2015 incident was handled, and the district will try to be more transparent in the future.
“We will make every effort to communicate with our families to the extent that is allowed,” he said.
While Laizure's glad to hear the district's taking steps to change, she still feels let down by the initial lack of communication.
“If they had done something this past two years, they could have really softened this blow to all of these parents and said, ‘Yes I know you’re finding about all of these measures we’ve taken, but you should feel OK. Your kids are safe in our schools,’” she said.
What made the 2015 case even more unusual, for Laizure, was the fact that in her experience the district usually does a good job of keeping parents in the loop. In the past, she said she’s received updates from the school when drugs or weapons were found, or in other potentially dangerous situations were unfolding on campus.
If that kind of notification had happened in this case, Laizure said, maybe parents and the school could have started working together earlier to make sure what happened to that student in 2015 doesn’t happen again.