Classmates called Riley a slut and a whore as she walked through the halls of Andrews Middle School in fall 2021, after she told police and school officials that a high school football player had sexually assaulted her, according to a federal complaint.
False rumors spread that Riley, then 14, an eighth grade cheerleader, was pregnant, and some classmates said she had “come on to” the 16-year-old football player, according to a letter Riley’s lawyer sent last year as part of a federal Title IX complaint against Cherokee County Schools in western North Carolina.
And even more troubling, rumors spread that the football player had recorded an intimate video of Riley, which she feared was circulating among her classmates, her complaint states.
This video may or may not have existed. NBC News has not seen it, nor spoken to anyone who saw it firsthand. The rumors about the video were the subject of official probes, and one middle school student told administrators that he had seen it. Yet the football player denied making a video, and the district later concluded that “the preponderance of the evidence shows a video did not exist,” a conclusion Riley’s lawyer tried to get the district to reverse. Prosecutors filed a charge against the football player related to the video but later dropped it.
Riley and her mother said they expected school staff to curb the harassment and stop the rumored spread of a video. Instead, Riley’s Title IX complaint alleges a cascading series of failures by teachers, coaches, counselors and administrators who ultimately left Riley on her own, forcing her to quit a sport she loved and withdraw from school.
“I felt very broken and defeated,” said Riley, who is being identified by her middle name because of her age. “I felt like my trust was shattered, and very isolated and alone.”
Administrators met her sexual harassment complaints with “continued indifference,” the complaint says. After Riley reported that a classmate had called her a “big, fat, ugly slut,” the school’s principal told Riley that “sometimes the truth hurts,” according to the complaint. And when Riley reported the ongoing harassment to a school counselor, she told Riley, “‘We knew this was going to happen’ because of the sexually explicit video” and did not help her, the complaint says.
“I think this situation is a perfect example of why schools have Title IX obligations,” said Chloe Neely, the lawyer representing Riley in her Title IX complaint. Had the harassment “been addressed in a timely manner, it would have prevented her from leaving the school district altogether.”
The federal Department of Education opened an investigation into Riley’s complaint last August, a spokesperson confirmed. The agency does not comment on ongoing investigations.
A spokesperson for Cherokee County Schools declined to comment.
Riley’s Title IX complaint accuses Cherokee County Schools, which has about 2,900 students, of not properly training school staff on how to respond to a complaint of harassment.
Inadequate training on Title IX — the law that protects students from sex-based discrimination — is common in small districts, like Cherokee County, that have fewer resources than larger districts and may have less experience handling sexual harassment complaints, said Elizabeth Meyer, an associate professor of education at University of Colorado at Boulder.
“There usually aren’t any accountability measures in place to ensure compliance with Title IX,” said Meyer, who was not referring specifically to Cherokee County. And “there is little incentive to be proactive in Title IX education and prevention because there are no regular checks from the Office for Civil Rights.”
The Office for Civil Rights largely focuses on responding to the complaints it receives, rather than monitoring districts for compliance. In fiscal year 2021, the federal agency conducted 17 proactive investigations on issues including racial discrimination, while it resolved more than 8,000 complaints it had received. If the department finds a district mishandled a case, federal officials can require the district to make policy changes.
The Biden administration has proposed changes to Title IX to better prepare school officials to respond to complaints, including requiring training for all school staff on recognizing sexual harassment and sex discrimination. The changes would also require all school employees to report harassment allegations to the district’s Title IX coordinator, and it would mandate additional training for the coordinator and all other staff members who are involved in resolving complaints.
The proposed Title IX changes are currently going through a federal review process and could be finalized later this year.
In fall 2021, Cherokee County administrators told Marcella, Riley's mother, who is also being identified by her middle name, that they could not look into Riley’s harassment allegations because she had reported the rumored video and alleged assault to the police, and the school needed to wait for the criminal investigation to conclude, the Title IX complaint says.
But federal regulations require school officials to offer “supportive measures” to students who report being sexually harassed, regardless of whether students make a formal Title IX complaint or report the issue to police. Even if there’s a related criminal investigation, school officials must “respond meaningfully to allegations of sexual harassment,” according to the Department of Education.
Cherokee County Schools only opened its own investigation in early 2022, after Marcella filed the Title IX complaint and more than three months after the alleged assault. When the district began interviewing students, many said they didn’t remember details, according to notes from the district’s investigation Marcella shared with NBC News.
“Had they been more proactive in talking to students, they would have gotten a lot more information,” Neely said.
The district ultimately recommended discipline for two students, according to the district’s final determination, which Marcella shared. By that point, Riley had already withdrawn from school.
Jeana Conley, who was superintendent at the time, told NBC News that it was the district’s practice to defer to police.
“We know now that we could have done those investigations probably parallel,” said Conley, who retired last fall, but “compared to a criminal charge, it seemed like Title IX paled in comparison.”
The football player, whom NBC News is not identifying because of his age, was charged in juvenile court last spring with second-degree forcible rape, sexual battery, felonious restraint, third-degree sexual exploitation of a minor and second-degree sexual exploitation of a minor related to “a visual representation of a minor engaged in sexual activity,” according to court records provided by Marcella. Juvenile court records are not publicly available in North Carolina.
Last August, the district attorney’s office dropped the restraint and sexual exploitation charges, and soon afterward a district court judge ruled that there was no probable cause to prosecute the football player on the remaining charges, according to the judge’s order provided by Marcella.
The football player’s mother and lawyer both declined to comment.
The 2021 school year had started on a high note for Riley. She had just made the cheerleading squad, which cheered at all of the junior varsity football games.
One night in late September 2021, Riley got an Instagram message from a varsity football player she had seen on the field but never met. After making small talk about dogs, they made plans to meet, according to Instagram messages shared with NBC News.
The football player picked her up and took her to his house, where he asked her to smoke marijuana and started to kiss her, both firsts for Riley, she said. Then “a switch flipped,” she said, and “he was very touchy.”
Riley said the marijuana made her feel “like I was necessarily not in my body, like it was a dream.” Then the football player started having sex with her, she said.
“Eventually I said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ He didn’t care. There was no emotion,” Riley said.
Riley told him it hurt and tried to shove him off, but she said he told her to stop pushing.
“I had never had sex. I thought, maybe that’s normal. That’s what’s supposed to happen and maybe I was crazy,” she said. “If this is what sex is all about, it’s not what I want.”
She attended cheer practice the next day. That evening, when she got home, her mother confronted her.
Marcella had heard from another mother that an intimate video of Riley was circulating at her school. The other mother said she’d heard of it through Riley’s cheerleading coach, Marcella said.
Riley collapsed into tears. It was the first she’d heard of the video, she said.
“I was afraid for her safety,” Marcella said.
The next morning, Marcella visited the county sheriff’s office to file a criminal complaint, records provided by Marcella show. She then met with the middle and high school principals, a counselor, a county social worker and the school resource officer. But the school resource officer told her that since Marcella had already spoken to the sheriff’s office, the school district “could not get involved,” according to the Title IX complaint.
Over the next three weeks, Riley was subjected to sexual taunts at school, the complaint says.
At one point, Riley told the school counselor that another student had called her a whore and made a crude gesture at her, and the counselor changed the subject, the complaint says.
When adults didn’t help, “it made me feel like I wasn’t good enough, and I wasn’t worthy of them standing up for me,” Riley said.
Marcella pulled her from school in mid-October and homeschooled her for the rest of the school year.
“I felt like I was living in this world where only I saw something wrong and nobody else was seeing it,” Marcella said.
Two months later, Marcella learned about Title IX online and immediately tried to initiate the grievance process. At first, district officials told her they didn’t know who the Title IX coordinator was, Riley’s federal complaint states. In December 2021, Marcella filed a complaint with the federal Office for Civil Rights, and followed up a week later with a Title IX complaint to the district.
In mid-January 2022, Cherokee County Schools began investigating the alleged harassment, according to notes from the district’s investigation provided by Marcella. (The sexual assault allegation was not part of the district’s investigation, which was limited to on-campus activities.) By that point, many of the two dozen students interviewed said they couldn’t remember details, according to the notes.
The middle school boy who Riley accused of calling her a slut admitted to school investigators that he’d done so, the notes said. He also said the football player had shown him an intimate video of Riley on his phone, the notes said. He was the only student interviewed by the district who said he’d seen the video. Another student said he had not seen the video, but said that most of the football team had. Other students said the football player told them a video did not exist.
In May, the district issued its final report, which Marcella shared with NBC News. The middle school boy was suspended for three days for sexually harassing Riley. His mother did not comment.
The district found that the football player had not sexually harassed Riley but had violated the student code of conduct by calling her names. The district referred his discipline to the high school principal; any punishment was not disclosed.
Riley, who started high school in a different county last fall, has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. She used to be eager to go to school, but now she sometimes struggles to stay focused, Marcella said. She no longer does cheerleading.
Riley said she looks back at the girl she was nearly 16 months ago and compares her to who she is now.
“She was a very hardworking person and she was very competent, and she was this unbreakable thing,” Riley said. “There was no breaking her. No stopping her, and then … now.”
“Now I’m fragile and the simplest thing can upset me,” Riley said as her eyes welled up. “It’s kind of tiring. It’s exhausting being me now.”