I-TEAM | Title IX failure: Richmond Co. high school punishes student who reports sexual assault

Published: Aug. 29, 2023 at 6:18 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - An I-TEAM investigation exposes how the Richmond County School System has failed a student when it comes to Title IX, and it has nothing to do with sports.

You mostly hear about Title IX as it relates to gender equality in school athletics, but that’s just one part of the federal law.

Title IX also requires schools to take certain steps when a student reports a sexual assault, but as our I-TEAM uncovered, that’s not always happening.

During the 2022-2023 school year, a Butler High School student reported he was sexually assaulted in a restroom stall during school. Instead of launching an investigation or providing the student with the required support, the school punished him with a 10-day suspension.

WARNING: This story discusses sexual violence and suicide, so please take care when watching the video or reading further.

The student and his mother wanted to hide their identities. The young man, interviewed in the shadows, feels he is still in a dark place.

“If this happened to me, and no one is going to do anything, what if it happens to someone else?”

He is speaking out in the darkness so he can shine a light on cracks in a system that was supposed to protect him.

Instead, he was punished for speaking up. His mother shared a photo of his arm. It bears countless scars from cuts he did to himself.

His mother says her son was hospitalized for taking a bottle of Tylenol. The day he finally reported to the Butler High School guidance counselor he was sexually assaulted; his mother says he was thinking of suicide.

Student's scars from cuts he did to himself
Student's scars from cuts he did to himself(wrdw)

“He told me that his only options, and he told her, ‘Either I get help now or go home and kill myself.’ Those are the only two options for him that day,” his mother said. “He was going home to take his life.”

They both wanted you to know that because they say that’s how high the stakes can be.

According to the principal’s incident report, it happened in the restroom. The report reads “students were engaged in sexual activity.” The younger teen says it was oral sex.

Meredith Anderson: “So you were the only two in the bathroom?”

Student: “Yes ma’am.”

The student says he didn’t tell anyone until a video of it started making the rounds at school.

Meredith Anderson: “You didn’t know he was recording?”

Student: “No ma’am.”

Meredith: “What did you think when you saw the video?”

Student: “First, I mean, it felt wrong. I mean, I had felt guilty and stuff, but then I also knew – he said that no one would ever believe me - but now I have something to make them believe me. So that’s when I went ahead to tell the counselor about it.”

With a copy of that video in hand, he says he told the guidance counselor everything. She called his mother.

“When I first walked in the guidance counselor’s office, he was sitting there, and he had a pamphlet on sexual assault in his hand,” his mother said. “And she sat down with me, and he was like, ‘Mom, we have to have a very uncomfortable conversation.’ And she said, ‘Your son was a victim of sexual assault.’ That is what she said to me.”


Federal law Title IX requires schools to report, investigate, offer help

This is where Title IX should have come into play. It’s the same federal law that makes sure female athletes get the same opportunities as male athletes, but it’s not just about sports.

It’s also about sexual harassment, which the law says includes sexual assault and dating violence.

Title IX outlines how schools are required to respond to these types of complaints, and it’s laid out in black and white, so it’s very clear.

The School’s Title IX Coordinator gets involved. They then contact the student about support, like counseling, and show them how to file a formal complaint.

The mother and son say none of that happened. They say a Title IX Coordinator never contacted them, and no one provided any support.

Absence of records with RCSS and law enforcement shows RCSS violated federal law

Our I-TEAM’s Open Records Request backs that up. We received no documents about anything involving Title IX at Butler High School during that school year, with the School System citing a federal privacy law.

Instead, his mother was contacted about how her son was going to be punished.

“They’re telling me, ‘He’s facing alternative school. He’s facing expulsion.’ But I can sign a waiver to waive all punishment on him and handle things in-house.”

The mother says she pushed back, started asking questions, and was told the tribunal was cancelled. Still, she received an incident report in the mail. It listed her son as now being in trouble because he had “engaged in sexual activity in the restroom.”

For the teen’s mother, it became very clear Butler High School no longer saw her son as a victim.

She says he took some time off for inpatient treatment to work on his mental health and later returned to school. The school counted those absences as a 10-day suspension.

The I-TEAM was able to confirm it in an open records request. We asked for “sex crimes or allegations of sexual misconduct on Butler High School’s campus” during that school year. The names are blacked out, but the date and ages of students match up. Both students were suspended for 10 days.

“The Richmond County School Board needs to investigate this. They need to make it right,” said Tanya Jeffords.

Tanya Jeffords is an attorney representing the student and his mother. She believes Butler High School violated more than just Title IX.

“Whether you believe them or not, due process of the 14th Amendment requires that you give them the opportunity to be heard. And that’s what I want him to have- is the opportunity to be heard,” Jeffords said.

She believes that needs to happen for several reasons. First, she says, the law gives him that right, but the Richmond County Schools accept federal funding. That means they could be in danger of losing it if they don’t follow Title IX.

However, she’s worried students will never report anything if this isn’t fixed.

Future students possibly discouraged from speaking up

Tanya Jeffords: “It starts with people being afraid to speak up, to speak out. And then when they do, they become the bad person in the narrative. And that’s wrong. Hope we can change it.”

Meredith: “So he went from victim to villain -- like that?”

Tanya: “Exactly. And the question is -- why? Why? If this would have been a young girl who came in and said that she was sexually assaulted, and there was a video going around of her, would somebody had done something about it?”

That video is also an important part of this. The student took it to the guidance counselor who showed it to his mother.

“I don’t know any person, whether it’s your wife, your mother, your girlfriend, or anybody who consents to saying, ‘Oh, videotape me, and pass it along to all of my peers. I certainly appreciate that.’ Let alone a 15-year-old child. Think about the intimidation, the bullying,” Jeffords said.

Jeffords believes there are important lessons for other students.

“Everybody will tell you, I’m not one to have kids lose their lives over mistakes that they make when they’re young,” Jeffords said. “However, if you are not held accountable, or those mistakes that you make when you’re young are not addressed, then you begin to have the ability to go on and do this to other people.”

It appears Butler High School did handle this in-house. The I-TEAM sent an Open Records Request to the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office to see if Butler High School ever alerted law enforcement.

Deputies never looked into it. They have no records on file.

“And so, by not following their own policies and procedures under Title IX and the whole school system of their own rules, they’ve let both of those children down,” Jeffords said.

As for the young person at the center of this, he’s at a different school.

He’s continuing therapy, and he’s doing much better.

His mother just hopes their struggle can help light the way for others.

“If I could possibly stop another mother from sitting here in your chair, or sitting in a school, or even getting that phone call, stopping another child from leaving their bathroom, how my child left that day, then I can say that it was worth it,” she said.

Richmond County School System refuses to provide answers

The Richmond County School System refused to talk with the I-TEAM about why Title IX procedures were not followed in this case.

Chief Public Relations Officer Kesia Gunby denied our request to speak with Dr. Aronica Gloster, Richmond BOE System Title IX Coordinator.

Gunby emailed the I-TEAM the following statement, which did not answer our questions and included a link to their policy, which ended up being a link to a page no longer available.

“The Richmond County School System is committed to maintaining an educational environment that is free from discrimination and harassment, where all members of the school community are treated with dignity and respect. To that end, the School System has long had in place robust policies and procedures designed to prohibit harassment, bullying and discrimination of any kind, including sexual harassment and sexual assault, and to protect students and employees alike. These policies and procedures encompass requirements under the new Title IX regulations and include reporting and investigative procedures, complaint resolution, and consideration of supportive measures, such as changes in a student’s class schedule, school zone exemption and counseling.

While the School System cannot comment on any specific incident regarding students due to privacy protections, the School System can assert that when a case of harassment is reported or discovered, Title IX implications are considered and appropriate steps are followed, as may be applicable.”