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Clash over middle-school sex assaults: Did they happen?

This Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017 photo shows the gym, left, at Estill Middle School in Estill, S.C. The school, mired in poverty, stands out as having one of the nation's largest single sexual assault cases reported on school grounds - at least four students, ages 11 to 14, were victimized by as many as 30 kids in 2013. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

ESTILL, S.C. (AP) — The numbers are horrific: At least four students, ages 11 to 14, victimized by as many as 30 kids in one of the largest single cases of sexual assault reported on U.S. school grounds.

And yet four years later, it’s as if nothing happened.

The sheriff’s office investigated and filed an incident report, but eventually stopped asking questions after multiple fruitless attempts to discuss the case with a prosecutor. Estill Middle School said it couldn’t determine what, if anything, happened in the gym bathroom. The former school principal couldn’t even recall the incident when asked about it.

But to the grandmother of two girls who claimed they were forced by classmates to perform oral sex, there is no doubt that something terrible happened. She filed a lawsuit against the school district for failing to keep kids safe from harm.

“They were at a schoolhouse, where they were supposed to be protecting my kids,” she said.

In a yearlong investigation , The Associated Press uncovered about 17,000 official reports of sex assaults by students in U.S. elementary and secondary schools over a four-year period. That tally is an undercount because such attacks are widely under-reported, and states vary in their efforts to track, classify and catalog sexual violence by students.

AP’s analysis was based on state education records and supplemented by federal crime data, where the 2013 incident reported at Estill Middle School stood out.

Boys and girls ranging from 11 to 16 were sneaking into the gym bathroom to engage in sexual activity, according to the sheriff’s office investigative report, which classified the conduct as forcible rape, forcible fondling and disorderly conduct.

“The teachers, staff, and administration regularly failed to supervise students in the gym and regularly allowed students of the opposite sex to enter the bathroom with each other,” the grandmother’s suit alleges, claiming the school demonstrated “gross negligence” by allowing, or at least turning a blind eye to, student sex on school grounds.

‘A HE-SAID, SHE-SAID’

In a March 2013 incident report , Deputy Quintina Orr of the Hampton County Sheriff’s Office said she was initially called in to investigate a bullying incident involving several sixth-grade girls, who told her they’d seen the others having sex in the bathroom over many months. Orr, the school’s resource officer, also reported the vice principal said that on Feb. 22 she saw “several males running out of the girls restroom inside the gym” during fifth period and asked Orr to investigate further.

Orr spoke with everyone involved, she told AP in a recent interview. Many of the kids said they’d engaged in sexual activity in the bathroom, or that they’d seen others doing it. No one told her explicitly that they were forced, Orr said, but one girl gave her pause: She seemed to have a developmental disability.

Because of the ages involved — and the kids’ legal inability to consent — Orr reported that what happened inside the bathroom was, at worst, forcible rape.

She listed five victims: two 11-year-olds, two 12-year-olds and a 14-year-old. Twenty-nine boys and girls were listed as potential perpetrators, including some who she said stood watch outside the bathroom to warn if adults approached. (The numbers in her report differ slightly from the federal data, which included four victims and 30 culprits.)

Four years later, Orr thinks she was wrong to use the word “rape,” though she noted she never got any guidance from the prosecutor’s office on the correct charge. In hindsight, “sex crimes, sexual misconduct” would have been a more appropriate description, she said.

Sitting behind his desk at the Hampton County Sheriff’s Office, Lt. Perry Singleton agrees. He said Orr was a good law officer, but that she used the wrong terminology and that “sexual assault” would have been better.

In the end, it didn’t matter.

Singleton said he and Orr pursued the case with a prosecutor, several months after the incident and presented her with the students’ statements. But they never heard anything. Orr pressed on, her report showed. She tried calling the prosecutor on her cellphone and at her office several times over the next month. She noted in her report that the rape crisis center, where some of the girls had been referred, wanted to know why no charges had yet been filed.

When she approached Singleton again, he told her “not to worry about it.”

“It was a he-said, she-said,” Singleton told AP. “There was nobody who said, ‘I did this.’ It was just, ‘I saw him do this, I saw her doing that.’ There was nothing concrete, and we would have had a problem if that case went to court.”

Duffy Stone, Hampton County’s chief prosecutor, said his office didn’t pursue criminal charges because the students’ statements were wildly inconsistent and their ages made it almost impossible to determine who would be considered a victim and who a perpetrator. Under state law, if both children were under 14, neither could legally consent to sex.

Asked if any of the children said they were forced into sex, Stone said no, “none that we could prove.”

The principal at the time, Synetria Hawkins, is now an assistant at the school. Orr wrote in her report that when Hawkins was asked whether she had time to review video footage of the gym on the day of the Feb. 22 incident to match it to student statements, she said no.

When contacted by AP, Hawkins said she did not remember the sheriff’s office investigation. She did not return multiple messages left on her school voicemail, cellphone and at her home seeking further comment.

It is not clear to what extent the school itself investigated, as required under federal law and U.S. Education Department guidelines. Orr’s report noted that “a few parent interviews were conducted” along with plans for further meetings with students and parents.

In a statement to AP, the school district said it interviewed the students and their parents or guardians but that no one was disciplined “due to inconsistent stories among the students allegedly involved and a lack of evidence indicating that the alleged behavior occurred.”

Ralph Smiley, an attorney representing Hampton County District 2, said he could not provide any details on the school’s investigation and declined to comment on whether any policies were changed as a result of the incident.

In its response to the grandmother’s lawsuit, the school maintained it did nothing wrong, and suggested that if the girls suffered, they were “comparatively negligent in instituting, engaging in, and continuing the conduct which resulted in (their) injuries.”

STRUGGLES IN THE ‘CORRIDER OF SHAME’

“The school told us it was the girls’ fault,” the grandmother said, lips curled, “that they wanted it.”

She bristles at assertions that the girls were willing participants. The girls weren’t perfect, she said. They made mistakes just like anybody. But at 12 years old, they should have never been put in this position.

She spoke on condition that her name not be used, because the girls and her other grandchildren still go to district schools. In a town this size, word gets around.

She lives in a tiny trailer in a town 20 minutes outside of Estill where the walls shake each time a train roars by. At home, she could watch the girls. But at school, she trusted someone else to look after them.

“Why weren’t they supervised?” she said. “What will happen to other children?”

Estill lies in the heart of South Carolina’s Low Country. Its population, now 2,000, dwindled by nearly 16 percent between 2000 and 2010. Weather-worn homes are crumbling and storefronts are boarded up. Industry here died long ago.

Most parents have no choice but to send their children to the public schools. Ninety-eight percent of students at Estill Middle are African-American; more than 90 percent receive free or reduced lunch.

Decades ago, the school district joined others in suing the state, arguing that funding reliant on property taxes made it impossible for rural schools in this economically depleted region to provide even a “minimally adequate” education for their mostly poor students. In 2014, the state Supreme Court ruled in their favor.

Bud Ferillo, who made a documentary about these schools in 2005 and now runs a program about race and inequality at the University of South Carolina, said that the crumbling buildings and dismal learning conditions that characterized the “Corridor of Shame” schools were only part of the problem.

“Everything from violence to inappropriate sexual behavior can happen when nobody’s looking,” he said. “I heard about it a lot from both administrators and teachers, and even from some parents who knew that they were sending their children each day into dangerous territory. They believed they had little or no choice if they wanted their kids to get any kind of education.”

This was not the first time Estill faced allegations that students were being victimized — and that little was done to stop it. The sheriff’s deputy that Orr replaced as school resource officer, Larry Heyward, was convicted last year of sexually assaulting a student at the school and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Heyward’s victim, now 19, wonders why his teachers never asked any questions when week after week, month after month, Heyward would pull him out of class and into his office, where much of the abuse occurred. Or why nobody said anything when Heyward choked or Tased the boy in the hallway, in full view of students, teachers and administrative staff.

“I just don’t understand why me and two other boys were sent to his office every week and nobody ever noticed that. Nobody bothered to notice,” he said. The AP is not identifying him because it does not name victims of sexual abuse.

Orr believes the Heyward case affected students in the school, leading them to act out sexually. In its wake, she said, the school district failed to give students counseling or training on “how to report what’s wrong and what’s right.”

Lara Hart, an attorney who represented Hampton County District 2 in the lawsuit against the state, noted that children sometimes are harmed on campus, even at the most affluent schools.

“Children are hurt because children are hurt everywhere, for a variety of reasons. We try to protect them as much as we can,” she said. “I feel a lot for Hampton 2. They do the very best they can but they don’t have much. These children have a lot of needs, and they can’t get a leg up. It’s a hard, hard job and they need more support. At the end of the day, it’s the children who are suffering.”

But the grandmother insists that school officials could have done more, worked harder to figure out why the girls were left alone in the gym.

Her girls, she said, are still suffering. One went wild: She started acting out at school, so badly that she was sent for a stint at juvenile detention. The other went silent: She stopped seeing friends, and asked to be home-schooled. Neither wants to talk about it ever again, not even to the attorneys trying to assist in a civil suit the grandmother filed against the district.

The grandmother said she isn’t after money. She just wants to make sure her granddaughters — now in high school — and her other grandchildren will be safe at school.

“How could you let that happen to a 12-year-old child?” said the girls’ aunt, standing at the grandmother’s bedside with a hand on her shoulder.

“How could you let them go from our home, where we’re protecting them, to the school and let that happen? How could you have let that happen when we put our child in your care? How could you have let that happen?”

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Associated Press writers Justin Pritchard in Los Angeles, and Reese Dunklin, Emily Schmall and Claudia Lauer in Dallas contributed to this report.

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If you have a tip, comment or story to share about student-on-student sexual assault at K-12 schools, please email: schoolhousesexassault@ap.org

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