They were friends. They texted and laughed and flirted.
She is 16, with gorgeous eyes. He is 18, a charming athlete.
At Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington, they were part of a group of friends hanging out after classes on a November day, watching movies on their phones, laughing, teen-aging. He broke off and went into the weight room, telling her to “come talk to me.” She followed.
She says that after they got into the room, he attacked her from behind and raped her. He says the sex was consensual.
Police investigated the incident and didn’t charge him. But a school investigation determined it was “unwelcomed conduct of a sexual nature.”
The result? The girl was offered what’s known as a “victim transfer,” designed to put distance between her and her alleged attacker.
“So I’m the one who is supposed to leave all my friends and my teachers, change my classes and commute for an hour to another school?” she asked. “I’m the one who loses everything.”
What happened to the male student?
He got five hours of “healthy relationship counseling,” according to the girl’s family.
It’s not clear what that involves. School system officials won’t comment on the case because it involves specific students and wouldn’t allow me to interview Abdullah Zaki, who was then principal of Dunbar. (He was removed Monday afternoon following a report that showed staggering attendance problems at the school.) Nor would the school system tell me how many allegations of sexual assault it investigates annually or how often victim transfers are offered and how many are accepted.
After the girl came home from school that day, she said, she locked herself in the bathroom and showered and then went to bed, refusing to talk to anyone and washing away any evidence of what happened.
“I just wanted to forget that it happened,” she said.
Her family didn’t learn about the alleged rape until four days later — after Dunbar administrators heard about it from another parent. The story had been making the rounds at school. But by then, any physical evidence was long gone.
Officials interviewed both students and found a witness.
A friend of the male student — who was seen on surveillance video peeking into the weight room during the encounter — said that the sex was consensual.
After the school’s investigation, this was the conclusion it gave to the girl’s family in a report: “The act on November 9, 2017 between [the female student] and [the male student] was more likely than not unwelcomed conduct of a sexual nature based on a power differential.”
Doesn’t that sound like sexual assault? If it isn’t welcomed, it’s assault, last I heard.
The school system told me that in cases like this, both the alleged victim and the alleged attacker are given the option to transfer. It is the alleged victim who usually chooses to transfer.
But in this case, the girl’s family said, the principal informed them “with no hesitation that removing [the male student] from Dunbar was not an option, and in response to my request for information about possible steps I could take to ensure [the female student’s] safety, Principal Zaki quickly connected me to a representative from the student transfer office,” according to the grievance report they filed with D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson.
The 16-year-old decided to take the transfer at first, out of panic and fear. She said the male student had been following her into her classes and dogging her in the hallways, urging her to take back everything she’d said.
She tried to make the transfer work. She visited the other campus they wanted to send her to. It was an hour away from her home by Metro. And when she got there, it hit her how much she would miss her friends and her teachers. She had been doing well in all her classes.
“I just realized that if I went through with this, I would lose everything, and he would lose nothing,” she said.
So she canceled the transfer and returned to classes at Dunbar.
When we were talking last week, the girl turned to a relative and said, “I didn’t want to tell you this so you wouldn’t worry, but he slammed into me in the hallway the other day.”
Her family is furious with the way this was handled.
According to the family’s grievance, “The administration took no action to ensure [the female student’s] safety and to ensure that [the male student] did not further harass and intimidate her while at Dunbar after the rape.”
The grievance said that she had to ask each of her teachers individually to forbid the male student from entering her classes — none of which he was enrolled in.
Her family is trying to take action against the school using Title IX, a federal statute that protects people from sex discrimination in federally funded education programs. They argue that the female student has a right to a safe education and that keeping the young man at the school while pressuring her to transfer is not appropriate.
Much of the concern about campus sexual assault has centered on universities. But an Associated Press investigation found that 17,000 cases of sexual assault were filed in our nation’s K-12 schools from fall 2011 to spring 2015.
Title IX is one of the few ways that students find a measure of justice. At the beginning of the 2017-2018 academic year, the Office for Civil Rights Data Collection system showed 162 Title IX complaints pending against 141 K-12 school districts.
The 16-year-old believes the Title IX complaint is the only way the school will take her seriously.
She said that school officials pointed to flirtatious texts she shared with the male student before the incident and seeing them talk in the hallways after the incident as evidence that their encounter was consensual.
“They were telling me I put myself in the situation, being alone with him in the weight room,” she said. “But I think I should be safe anywhere in the school, no matter who is with me.”
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