FISHERS, Ind. -- The federal Office for Civil Rights has launched an investigation into whether Hamilton Southeastern Schools properly handled allegations of sexual violence.
The U.S. Department of Education opened the investigation on March 2 following complaints from two mothers who said their daughters were sexually assaulted by the same boy, who at the time was a fellow student at Hamilton Southeastern High School.
Call 6 Investigates spoke with one of the mothers who filed a Title IX complaint, alleging the district failed to follow a civil rights law aimed at keeping students safe from sexual misconduct.
She said some fellow students didn’t believe her. “They thought she was lying,” said the mom.
The mom said school officials did not support her daughter once she came forward.
"They were more worried about protecting the perpetrator than the victim the whole time,” said the mom. “He was a popular kid at school. He was a football player."
K-12 schools, just like universities, must comply with the federal civil rights law Title IX, which means the school is responsible marking sure an alleged victimized student is safe.
But the Fishers mom Call 6 Investigates spoke with said her daughter didn’t feel safe at school, especially seeing her alleged perpetrator in the hallways.
"She started having panic attacks,” said the mom
The alleged victim was able to obtain a protective order against the boy, but her mom said that didn’t help much at school.
“The solution from the dean was for our daughter to hang out in the lunch room for a few minutes before study hall so she wouldn't run into him,” said the mother. “I was flabbergasted. Why wasn’t he told to shift his route?"
The mother also said the school district provided conflicting information about who was the district’s Title IX coordinator.
“They did not offer us any resources,” said the mom.
“To protect student privacy and allow the administrative process to proceed fairly for all involved, we will not be commenting on the complaint,” said Michael J. Beresford, Assistant Superintendent at Hamilton Southeastern Schools.
The alleged victims left Hamilton Southeastern out of concern for their safety.
“What kid wants to transfer schools with a little more than a quarter left of their senior year?” said the mom.
The alleged perpetrator has not been criminally charged.
Dr. Mahri Irvine with the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault said when police, prosecutors, parents and friends do not initially believe victims—it is a form of victim blaming.
“Victim blaming is such a massive barrier for survivors coming forward and it really creates a vicious cycle,” said Irvine. “If the first person they reach out to for help shuts them down, that can create really harmful levels of trauma for that victim and allows the perpetrator to continue on and assault new victims in the future.”
Dr. Irvine said there are psychological reasons why people tend to blame victims, including the theory that it makes us feel safer and less vulnerable.
“The theory is that since the world is a fair place, we all get what we deserve, and therefore only someone who is doing something bad or stupid or risky is going to be sexually assaulted,” said Irvine. “It’s incredibly upsetting to think someone could do something horrible to us, so it actually makes us feel better if we victim-blame and say she must have done something wrong or got caught up with the wrong people.”
Irvine emphasized only about 6 percent of rape reports are false.
“It’s a tiny percentage of people who life,” said Irvine. “Typically a false report is a plea for help and it’s not seeking revenge on somebody. It could be because they have some serious mental health issues.”
The coalition is urging schools, police, parents, students and citizens to join a national campaign “Start By Believing.”
IMPD Sex Crimes Unit Sgt. Larry Cahill said they focus on believing the victim both verbally and with their body language.
“If you start off a case with prove it, that communicates to the survivor she has to prove something to prove you’re not going to get very far,” said Sgt. Cahill. “We start off each case as if that’s our own mother, daughter, family member and treat them that way.”
The Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault is urging police to use investigation techniques that focus on the offender’s behavior, rather than the victim.
As for Hamilton Southeastern Schools, the mom Call 6 Investigates spoke with said the school gave more consideration to the alleged perpetrator than her daughter.
She hopes the Title IX investigation will change that for the future.
“The school needs to be held accountable,” said the mother. “They’re supposed to follow these laws and they didn’t.”
When school districts are found in violation of Title IX, typically the school reaches an agreement with the Office for Civil Rights in which they agree on ways to improve.
If schools do not comply with Title IX, they can risk losing federal funding.