John Brecher / NBC News
TOMBALL, Texas—When Rachel Bradshaw-Bean claimed she had been raped in the band room of her high school in Texas, school officials sprang into action—and kicked her out of school.
"I felt like a criminal," she said, describing the December 2010 incident in her first extended interview on the crisis and aftermath. Accused of "public lewdness," she was sent to a special school for students with discipline problems, along with the boy she said had assaulted her. "I saw him there all the time," she said.
It's not an isolated incident. The events at Henderson High School in East Texas demonstrate the obstacles girls sometimes face when reporting sexual violence in schools. "High schools across the country are failing to live up to their responsibility to address sexual assault and harassment," said Neena Chaudhry, an attorney with the National Women's Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, D.C. "There's no excuse."
Bradshaw-Bean and her family fought back, sparking a Department of Education probe into whether the school had violated Title IX, the federal law prohibiting gender discrimination in education. Under the law, schools must follow specific rules when a student reports sexual violence; those rules include launching an internal investigation separate from any police inquiry. Henderson High School relied solely on a police investigation that deemed the sex consensual.
Today, with reports of teen sexual assault making national headlines, Bradshaw-Bean, now 20, said she is speaking out so that girls know their rights and schools properly address reports of sexual violence. "I don't want anyone else to have to go through what I did," she said. Her battle to clear her name, while navigating a disciplinary school that treated her "like a prisoner," she said, changed the course of her life.
'It kills you. You die'
Curled up in an armchair in her apartment in Tomball, on the outskirts of Houston, she described her life before the crisis blew it up. She enjoyed playing the euphonium in band. She volunteered with the Key Club around Henderson, a scenic town known for its historic homes and a syrup festival. She raised chickens as a member of Future Farmers of America. She planned to study pre-med in college.
Raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, she said her mother and stepfather taught her to be modest, polite. She and her mother are close and talk often. "My mom is so polite and classy—and also a hardcore rocker," she said. "She likes Metallica." Bradshaw-Bean hadn't had much experience with boys, just one boyfriend. During her junior year, she said, a boy in band had suggested she give him a "blow job" and she didn't know what that meant so she went home and asked her mother.
Midway through her senior year, on December 6, 2010, an otherwise normal day turned chaotic. She was hanging around school at day's end, she said, waiting for a Key Club meeting to start. A boy asked her to go into the band room to talk and she went; he was a year younger, she said, and she didn't know him well. In the room, she said, things took a violent turn and he raped her. She said she distinctly recalls saying no. Afterward, she said, "I was crying. I pulled my pants up and went to the bathroom to clean myself up."
She then went to an assistant band director, she said, telling him what had happened. His words stunned her: "He told me to work it out with the boy. There's no way I would do that. But I didn’t know what to think. I was 17."
Henderson High School declined to comment on the case, citing student privacy laws.
Feeling "shocked and numb," said Bradshaw-Bean, she went to her Key Club meeting that evening. Then she went to a band meeting, where her mother, stepfather and seven-year-old brother joined her. The boy from the band room was there too, she said, with his mother. Bradshaw-Bean sat silently through it.
"I didn't tell my parents. I didn't want them to have to go through that," she said, looking down at a Rubik's Cube that calms her in times of stress. She stayed home from school the next day, she said, then went back a day later and told a friend what had happened. The two girls together told another assistant band director. This time, the news got to an assistant vice principal. The school called the police and her parents. When her mother arrived at the school, Bradshaw-Bean said, "she had this look in her eyes, like she had died."
Her mother, Colleen Chevallier, echoes that sentiment. "It kills you. You die. You stay dead for a while," she said. "You become another person. I'm not the same person I was before this."
Expert: Schools don't know the rules
There were some 3,800 reported incidents of sexual battery and 800 reported incidents of rape or attempted rape in public high schools in the 2007-8 school year, according to a Department of Education letter to educators in 2011. (The department sends such letters periodically to issue policy guidance.) Calling the sexual violence a "call to action for the nation," the department reminded schools of their Title IX responsibilities, including the obligation to launch an internal investigation into reports of sexual assault to ensure a safe environment for students. Another requirement: appointing a Title IX coordinator to ensure compliance with the law.
The problem, said Sandra Park, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, is that educators don't necessarily know the rules. For instance, she said, the Title IX coordinator is often a school employee with other responsibilities who "just wears that additional hat" and doesn't have a firm grasp of the law.
The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights said it has received 59 complaints that include Title IX allegations related to sexual violence this year, up from 33 such complaints in 2012. The complaints are from all educational levels, from elementary to postsecondary.
In one case similar to Bradshaw-Bean's, the office ruled last year that Forest Hills Central High School in Michigan had failed to properly respond when a girl said she was sexually assaulted in the band room. The parents say the principal had discouraged them from filing criminal charges against the boy, an athlete. (The family did file charges and the boy pleaded guilty, according to the National Women's Law Center, which is now working with the family on a suit against the school.) Superintendent Daniel Behm said the school district "strongly disagrees" with aspects of the Department of Education findings, and that the school immediately called the police and parents when the assault was reported.
In Ohio, the Steubenville school district is under fire in a high-profile case in which two high-school football players raped a girl during a night of postgame partying. The boys were convicted this past spring. Last month, four current and former employees of Steubenville City Schools were indicted in a grand jury investigation into a possible cover-up of the crime. One is the superintendent, charged with obstructing justice and tampering with evidence, among other charges. A fifth school employee was indicted a month earlier.
Among the obstacles teenage girls face are deep-rooted misogynistic views on rape, said Park. "We've accepted a lot of victim-blaming," she said. "We're so intent on scrutinizing what the victim did, not the perpetrator's actions." She added, "In high schools, the students are so young, I think people are also loath to believe kids could be confronting this kind of violence." But they are. Forty-four percent of rape victims in America are under the age of 18, according to the nonprofit Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network.
Burden of proof
When Bradshaw-Bean got the attention of school officials, she was sent to a children's health clinic for a medical exam. NBC News obtained a copy of the medical report, which showed lacerations to the hymen and bleeding "consistent with information given per victim," the report said.
A forensic specialist who works with the police interviewed Bradshaw-Bean at the clinic, according to Michael Jimerson, the Rusk County district attorney. Bradshaw-Bean said she felt numb during the interview, not crying—which she thinks worked against her with the police. "I just felt like I couldn't cry anymore," she said. "I was just taking in so much."
The police called her parents to the station a day later, according to her mother. There, said Chevallier, she learned that no criminal charges would be filed. "They said the sex was consensual. I was so shocked," she said. "I thought, they are pushing this under the rug. She's being treated this way because she's a female. I looked at my husband and said, 'Do they know women have the right to vote?'"
Jimerson rejects those claims, saying "the case was investigated, reviewed and declined for prosecution based on the law and the evidence."
Jimerson said a security-camera video showed Bradshaw-Bean walking into the band room behind the boy; it did not show what happened inside the room. "In cases like this, you can either substantiate or not substantiate the claims," he said. "We broke it down with her version of events and his. Her claims could not be substantiated. At the end of the day, I just know that objectively, there was almost no chance of a conviction. As a prosecutor, I have to be vigilant about the cases I pursue."
He said the medical report is inconclusive, as lacerations to the hymen could occur from either consensual sex or sexual assault, and medical experts would testify to that. In addition, he said, according to his notes on the case, Bradshaw-Bean had used language that "implied consensual sex instead of forcible rape" in the interview with the forensic specialist, such as, "I am not saying I did not want to do it." Jimerson says he does not have the context—the statements made before and after that remark—in his notes.
Bradshaw-Bean said she doesn't remember exactly what she said but that the quote sounds like something taken out of context. "I was reporting a rape," she said. "It sounds like my words are getting twisted. If you have to twist someone's words to make your case, then something's not right."
The Henderson Police Department declined to comment on the case. NBC News filed an open-records request with the City of Henderson to see the police documents; the City Attorney declined the request, citing the fact that the alleged perpetrator was a juvenile.
Park said she understands the "burden of proof," noting that Bradshaw-Bean "went into the band room voluntarily—she wasn't dragged." However, she said, there was a report of rape, "and I don't think you close a case like this in basically a day. There seemed to be a rush to judge her and close the case rather than doing a full investigation."
'I hated the world'
Regardless of what the police concluded, however, Henderson High School had a legal obligation to launch its own investigation, which it did not do. Instead, it decided to discipline Bradshaw-Bean and the boy for "public lewdness," assigning them both to a disciplinary school for 45 days.
Chevallier said the high school informed her of its decision within days of the police ruling. She tried to get her daughter transferred to another high school, she said, but was denied due to the disciplinary action. "They were treating the victim like a criminal," she said. "It was really like living in hell. If it hadn't happened to me—if someone else told me this story—I'd think it wasn't true."
At the disciplinary school, part of a statewide program called the Disciplinary Alternative Education Program, Bradshaw-Bean said she sat in a room with much younger students—some from the sixth grade—at a desk facing the wall, doing textbook work. During this time, she felt increasingly angry and emotional: "I hated the world," she said. At the same time, she felt vulnerable. "I felt paranoid to even take a shower by myself," she said. "Someone would have to sit with me in the bathroom."
The family descended into chaos. "I felt like I was breaking in half," said Chevallier. Her husband drove their daughter to and from the disciplinary school, she said, to shield Chevallier from seeing the boy who upended her daughter's life. Bradshaw-Bean said she was not in the same class as the boy, but saw him regularly, for instance when arriving at school or going to the bathroom. The Henderson school district declined to comment on her claims.
Bradshaw-Bean also believes the boy trashed her to other kids. She said a student once told her she had "asked for it." Another time she received a taunt on Facebook, she said, from a male relative of the boy. Her mother remembers that note. "It said, 'You weak,'" she said. "I wrote him back—I just let him have it. I said, 'This is Rachel's mom. If you say one more word to her, I will put you in jail.'"
Chevallier, who has worked as both a substitute teacher and a prison administrator, went to the ACLU. "I thought, this cannot pass," she said. "I think everyone underestimated us."
A 'really egregious' case
The case was "really egregious," said Park, the ACLU lawyer. She filed a Title IX complaint with the Department of Education, and helped get Rachel transferred to another high school.
As the government investigation began, Bradshaw-Bean graduated and went into a funk. "My personality changed," she said. "I didn't want to do anything. I blamed myself for the longest time." She had planned to go to community college. Instead she stayed home, depressed, she said, with no job. After a few months, she enrolled in nearby Kilgore College "to get out of my parents' hair," she said. But she wasn't up for it, and left soon after.
In June 2012, a year and a half after the incident in the band room, Bradshaw-Bean finally got some news that helped her get her life back on track. The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights wrapped up its investigation of Henderson High School, ruling that the school had violated Title IX by failing to independently investigate the case—and also had retaliated against Bradshaw-Bean, failing to provide "a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason" for banishing her to the disciplinary school.
The office laid out a 13-point plan to bring the school in line with its responsibilities under Title IX, including extensive training of the faculty. The school was also required to clear Bradshaw-Bean's record of the disciplinary-school placement, and to pay for a few counseling sessions.
"The counselor really helped," she said, adding that she felt vindicated by the ruling. "Finally, I thought, there are some smart people in the world—rational people with levelheaded thoughts. It restored my faith in humanity." She said she hopes her case will spur schools to know the rules and respond appropriately to reports of sexual violence.
In a statement, Henderson High School said it has revised its investigation procedures "to meet Title IX requirements" and provide "a safe environment for all of our students." Further, the school said, as of Dec. 4, 2013, it is in full compliance with all 13 requirements in the plan laid out by the Office for Civil Rights.
The Department of Education declined to comment on the case, saying it is still monitoring the school.
'I can help others facing injustice'
This past fall, Bradshaw-Bean went back to college, attending Lone Star College in Tomball. She is also a newlywed, recently marrying a young man named Robert Bean who she had met in the cafeteria at Kilgore College one morning just before leaving the school. "He is so good. He has so much understanding," she said, opening a little box of neatly handwritten love letters she has given him.
Riding to dinner in a cab with him since the two don't own a car, Bradshaw-Bean talked with the driver about his troubles, nodding sympathetically while he described a leg lost from diabetes. At the restaurant, her husband held her hand. She teased him about how he is shy around strangers. When talk turned to her ordeal, her husband became serious, saying, "I encouraged her to tell her story."
She describes him as her support system. One night, she said, her little brother broke her Rubik's Cube, which she calls her "lifesaver" for helping her cope in moments of anxiety about her past. "I started crying. I just lost it," she said. "Robert stayed calm. He just went out to Walmart and bought me a new one."
She said she is excited about being back in college: "I'm as happy as can be right now." As for the boy who derailed her senior year, she said, "He took away my joy, but I got it back, double-fold." Her plan now is to study criminal justice and criminal psychology. "I think about how I'll live my life—I think about what I will do with my experience," she said. Because of the injustice she endured, she said, "I can help others facing injustice of their own."
Abigail Pesta is an award-winning journalist who has lived and worked around the world, from London to Hong Kong. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan, The New York Times, Marie Claire and Newsweek. Follow her at @AbigailPesta.
First published December 23 2013, 6:41 AM