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Open Spaces

Guernsey Kindergarten Incidents Raise Questions About How Schools Handle Sexual Assault

Melodie Edwards
In small towns like Guernsey, WY, pop. 1100, it's hard to make sure sure children's privacy remains protected while also keeping families informed.

This is the first in a two-part series on this issue. To hear WPR Education Reporter Tennessee Watson's follow up, click here.

Renee and her husband bought a home just outside Guernsey with plans to raise a family there. (We're not using their real names to protect children's identities.)

"We transferred with the railroad so that we could be close to family and live in a rural community, a small community that was better to raise kids in," said Renee.

They enrolled their daughter in kindergarten, and she excelled. Until a couple of months ago when Renee's daughter told her she was inappropriately touched by a boy at school.

"She did request that this boy be moved from her because he had been touching her butt."

Most people think adults always abuse children, but, actually, according to a recent report by the Associated Press, children are seven times more likely to be assaulted by another kid on school grounds than a grown up. It's a statistic that has become more noticeable in Wyoming classrooms and school buses too.

But it wasn't something Renee had ever considered. Immediately, she and her husband went to talk to the superintendent. Turns out the teacher did move the child but didn't inform them of the incident right away.

The superintendent said the behavior was just kids being kids, not sexual. But soon after, other parents came forward saying the same child had exposed himself on the playground and it was caught on a security camera. Now Renee knew to ask her daughter questions.

"In the end, there was another incident of an even more sexual nature that happened on the playground, but off camera," Renee said.

This time, the boy had intimately touched her daughter's genitals. Again, they went to the superintendent. The school contacted the police and the Department of Family Services who removed the boy from the classroom.

But a couple of weeks later, the child was back in class with their daughter. He had an adult assistant with him at all times. But Renee felt it was too early since the investigations were still ongoing. The school also asked her not to discuss the incidents with other parents to protect the accused child's privacy.

"If a child gets lice in school, we're notified immediately that day," said Renee. "A note is sent home that day. If a child is sexually abused at school, we can't tell anybody anything? That does not seem right."

They've now taken their daughter out of school and so have two other families.

"What the problem is, is that these policies are not written for kindergarteners," she explained. "These policies are definitely for an older generation that can fill out their own complaint forms, that can name witnesses and the amount of times this has happened."

Renee said younger children rely on parents and guardians to advocate for them and that means school policies may need to change.

"They don't tell you about Title IX, they don't tell you what rights you have as a parent that's having an issue like this at the school level," said Renee. "I think they should give you that information and tell you what you can do to help the process move along smoothly."

Renee has now filed a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, a law that says schools must respond promptly to sexual assaults in school and offer short-term solutions until a case is resolved.

Mike Beard, the superintendent for the Platte County School District, said offering Title IX protections isn't easy for schools, especially because they must also juggle FERPA laws (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act).

"It's a fine line we walk because it's confidentiality and pertains to all students," he said.

Beard couldn't discuss the kindergarten incidents specifically, but he did agree the school's policies are geared more toward older kids. But he said the school does its best to communicate openly with parents.

"The fact that we cannot share information, that comes across as a lack of compassion and that's not the case at all," said Beard. "Sometimes we have to just be factual and unfortunately that's just the way it is."

Jennifer Davis with the Wyoming Children's Trust Fund and the group Prevent Child Abuse in Wyoming said, schools have adopted a pick up and drop off system.

"We don't do a great job engaging parents in that system and having them at the table, having their voice at the table, really establishing a relationship."

Davis said more communication would help prevent incidents like the one in Guernsey from happening in the first place. Part of that is getting educators trained to spot children with sexual behavior problems and get them the help they need.

"We really need to have all of our educators at all levels in our schools knowing what trauma-informed practices look like and evaluate that, looking at these children who are expressing behavior issues," she said. "We have to get to the why's."

But Davis said it's not likely Wyoming will mandate trauma-informed training or age-appropriate sexual assault policies anytime soon.

"When we put mandates down from the top, we get a lot of pushback. Then at your local level, when we push things up from the bottom, then sometimes there's resistance at the top," said Davis. "In my opinion, I think we need to come to that middle ground."

Like involving organizations like hers to help inform lawmakers at all levels about the value of sexual assault prevention in schools.

Guernsey mom Renee said it's been confusing for the whole community.

"It's very mixed emotions for a parent to be upset with a child and also be worrying about him," she said. "And then, your own child, having to deal with this stuff with her. It's kindergarten, for god's sake."

Renee said, she and her husband are now deciding whether to move forward with a lawsuit.

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