Montgomery County school officials have pushed back on immigration issues, saying the school system, like others in Maryland and nationally, admits all children, regardless of their status, in keeping with U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
“We are a public school system, and we serve all of our students when they come to us,” Schools Superintendent Jack Smith said.
But the outpouring of the past week has also included pointed questions about safety. How could a rape happen at 9 a.m. in a school of 1,450 students? Where were the adults when the victim was allegedly pushed into a boys’ bathroom? Did anyone notice the students were out of class?
School officials have voiced horror and regret about the March 16 incident but have not provided detailed answers, saying they cannot do so while police are investigating because it might jeopardize the prosecution.
"As far as explaining how this could happen, that information will come out . . . as the judicial process unfolds," Smith told reporters.
Smith said the school district is reviewing “every single aspect” of its safety plans to address any gaps in security. Rockville High is one of the system’s smaller high schools. It has five security staff members in addition to a sworn school resource officer who is on the county police force and 105 surveillance cameras.
Looking to reassure parents, Rockville Principal Billie-Jean Bensen said this week the school is making “small but significant changes” so staff members know “where our students are all the time.” Teachers will take attendance several times during class and keep closer track of hallway passes and absences, she said.
“We are being very vigilant about making sure your children are safe in school,” she said at a Tuesday night meeting attended by 600 to 700 people that was closed to the news media. Officials later made a recording public.
One county resident suggested the school monitor its hallway cameras in real time, rather than using them mostly to examine incidents after the fact. That might “prevent a tragedy like this from happening,” she said, to applause.
School officials said they do not have nearly enough staff members to monitor the thousands of cameras placed in schools across the district but are assessing how they are used.
The suspects in the case were arrested at Rockville High last week. An attorney for Henry Sanchez Milian, 18, has said his client was wrongly accused. Attorneys for Jose Montano, 17, have not commented. Court documents allege the two teens took turns raping the victim as she cried out in pain and repeatedly told them to stop.
Amid community outrage, many have focused on the immigration status of the students, and on their ages. Both arrived at Rockville High earlier in the school year and were ninth-
graders enrolled in classes for English learners.
While their grade level has been a flash point, school officials say such designations are based on credits earned, not age. High schools have long brought together teenagers ranging in age from 14 to 18 or even older, they said. Students are eligible to enroll by law if they are under 21.
The suspects were not in the same classes as the victim, school officials said. The victim knew one suspect but not the other, police said.
Paul Geller, president of the countywide council of PTAs, called the situation "beyond tragic"and said he has been hearing plenty from parents. "The folks I've talked to so far, they just want it fixed," he said.
The attack took place 75 minutes into the school day in a boys' restroom in a less-traveled part of the school, police said. At this week's meeting, one community member raised questions about a particular restroom that is often locked.
School officials did not comment on whether the incident took place there, citing the investigation, but said the restroom is being converted to a walk-in style like others on campus.
“This is every school system’s worst nightmare,” said school board member Patricia O’Neill, noting that families expect children to be safe during the school day. She said she had not heard of another Montgomery case like the one at Rockville High in nearly two decades on the board.
Last school year, there were 250 sex-related “serious incidents” in Montgomery’s 200-plus schools, according to a district safety report. The category includes unwelcome sexual advances, verbal and written harassment, assault and rape. Sixty-four of the incidents resulted in calls to police, the report said.
Jennifer Alvaro, an activist on school sexual abuse issues in Montgomery, said she has found the report’s numbers are far lower than what actually occurs. She called on the district to do better tracking. “Without accurately understanding the full scope of the problem, you can’t begin to solve it,” she said.
At Rockville High, additional police were on campus this week as hostile calls and emails came in. PTSA leaders closed their meeting to reporters. Bensen, the principal, declined most interviews, saying she wanted to focus on her community, officials said.
On Thursday, Rockville High students and staff members dressed in orange, a school color, to show unity as part of an effort they called “Rockville Strong.” Several other schools joined in to show support, said Alejandra Crawley, head of Rockville’s counseling department.
“It was difficult to go through such a horrific experience, but we’re just trying to come together. . . . We’re trying to heal,” she said.
School officials said they would provide more information next week about enhancing security.
“It’ll be an impetus to look at all our schools,” said Michael A. Durso, school board president.
Other community leaders worried about fallout from the case. One parent at the Rockville meeting said she had heard Latino students had gotten comments like, “Why are you here?” and “This is why we need to build the wall.”
"I just really encourage the parents to reach out and help that not become a thing," she said.
Rockville High's student body is 41 percent Hispanic, 30 percent white, 13 percent black and 12 percent Asian. Students who are in classes for English learners accounted for 10 percent of enrollment last year.
Diego Uriburu, a Latino community leader, described the incident as horrible and said it’s important to make sure the actions of the alleged offenders do not “cast a negative cloud” on other students who are recent arrivals, or on the larger community.
“There are thousands and thousands of other kids who are working extremely hard to contribute to society,” he said. “They love this country. They have nothing to do with crime.”