The principal of Cape Elizabeth High School is defending the district’s response to notes left in two bathrooms at the school claiming that there was “a rapist” at the school.

In a letter emailed to the school community on Wednesday, Principal Jeffrey Shedd also revealed that the boy who was the target of the notes left by three students missed eight days of school because he felt unsafe.

“The student is back now. He’s had many CEHS classmates who have reached out to and supported him – an increasing number, in fact, as this story about CEHS has gained national traction,” Shedd said in his letter.

Shedd said the school has been receiving anonymous rants via email and irate phone calls from around the nation in the weeks since Sept. 16 when “three of our students who were well motivated, with good intentions, made a really bad choice. They posted notes in two of our bathrooms claiming there is a ‘rapist’ in CEHS.”

The district said it has conducted 47 interviews since the notes were found and the boy’s family said he felt he was being bullied and asked the school to investigate, Shedd said.

Three female students at the school have told the Press Herald that they were suspended for posting the sticky notes.

The American Civil Liberties Union got involved in the case Wednesday, when it represented Aela Mansmann, a 15-year-old sophomore who is at the center of the controversy, during a disciplinary hearing over her suspension.

No decisions were announced after the hearing, said Shael Norris, Mansmann’s mother. Superintendent Donna Wolfrom has the final say on an appeal, according to school policy.

The two other students who said they were suspended have not spoken publicly about their cases.

Mansmann is a self-described advocate for girls who confided to her that they had been sexually assaulted.

Mansmann and several other students said they were dissatisfied with how the school district handled accusations of sexual assault last spring, and their frustrations over what they perceived as school inaction boiled over in September.  That prompted Mansmann to post a note in the school bathroom on Sept. 16 that said “there’s a rapist in our school and you know who it is.”

Sex crimes are historically underreported – approximately three out of four sexual assaults are not reported to police, according to federal data – and not every reported Title IX complaint results in criminal charges.

At a meeting Tuesday night, the School Board said the district has investigated 10 complaints of sexual harassment since 2018, including one case of sexual assault and one of unwanted sexual touching, school officials said. The other eight sexual harassment cases did not involve unwanted touching or assault and were for gestures, photos or verbal harassment.

Of the 10 cases, the district concluded it was “more likely than not” that five had occurred, said Cathy Stankard, Cape Elizabeth’s affirmative action officer.

School officials wouldn’t specifically say whether one of the cases was related to the notes left in the bathrooms.

Because details of criminal cases involving juveniles are often confidential, it is unclear whether any student at Cape Elizabeth High School has been charged with or adjudicated of a sex crime.

The Cape Elizabeth Police Department said it has investigated four cases of alleged sex crimes in the last three years, including at least two cases that involved juvenile suspects. That data covers the entire town, so those cases may or may not be related to students at the high school. The data includes misdemeanor sex crimes such as unwanted unlawful sexual contact and unwanted sexual touching, as well as felony sex crimes including gross sexual assault. And it does not include cases in which an alleged victim spoke to a police officer but decided not to file a complaint.

Police Chief Paul Fenton could not say whether any of those investigations resulted in criminal charges.

Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck said he could not disclose any information about cases involving juvenile perpetrators without a court order. But he said he does not want to discourage victims from coming forward with their reports.

“Victims should be able to be heard and feel safe to come forward reporting a crime,” Sahrbeck said.

Mansmann has said that the note was written referring to multiple people, and was not for a specific person. Mansmann couldn’t be reached for comment on Wednesday, but she explained her intentions on Instagram this week.

“All of my efforts to address the issues specific to my school have been because I care so much about all of the students in my school,” Mansmann wrote on Instagram. “I do not want to believe that anyone set out to intentionally harm anyone else, but I believe my school and most schools fail students in helping them to understand enthusiastic consent and how to navigate our first sexual experiences. This leaves everyone of us vulnerable to learning about things from some of the worst resources.”

School officials determined that the bathroom note constituted a case of bullying and punished Mansmann with a three-day out-of-school suspension.

Wolfrom, the superintendent, said that after a student filed a complaint that he was being bullied by the note, the district conducted an “exhaustive” investigation into the accusations and determined that the case “fell under the definition of bullying in our policy.”

Wolfrom said she could not provide more specifics about the case because of confidentiality protections for students, but said “there is a lot of misinformation” about the bullying case.

Wolfrom said many of the interviews were conducted to investigate the sexual assault allegation in the bathroom note, and not the bullying accusation. Some of the interviews had dual purposes of asking about the alleged sexual assault and the bullying.

Wolfrom said she couldn’t reveal the results of the sexual assault investigation – for confidentiality reasons – but said that school officials can say “with confidence” that Cape Elizabeth High School students are safe. The school’s enrollment last year was 533, according to the Maine Department of Education.

About 40-50 students staged a walkout Monday over the suspensions, with some students holding signs that said “Advocating for survivors is not a crime.”

Stankard, the district’s affirmative action officer, said since she started at Cape Elizabeth in 2016, more of her job involves investigating student complaints of sexual harassment or assault, as awareness has grown since the #MeToo movement gained traction.

She said students now feel more empowered to come forward with complaints.

“The landscape has completely changed, and that’s a good thing,” Stankard said. “We are really happy about this, as the culture of silence, which has been so toxic, is shifting.”

Stankard said as soon as a complaint comes in, she investigates it immediately.

“We take these cases very seriously,” she said. “We want people to come forward.”

The district does not tell survivors about punishments that are handed down to those who were accused, because of confidentiality laws regarding school disciplinary actions. If a sexual assault case against a juvenile suspect was prosecuted in the courts, the records would be public if the offense was a felony. Some other crimes, like unlawful sexual touching, are misdemeanors and are confidential.

“The victim is given enough information to feel safe,” Stankard said. She said that victims can be told, for instance, that a student will not be in the same class as them, to keep the two students away from each other as much as possible.

If the incident is serious enough, the school will report the case to the district attorney’s office. Victims who come forward with complaints are encouraged to file a police report.

All cases of reported sexual assault and unwanted touching are referred to the district attorney’s office, Stankard said, while more minor cases may or may not be, depending on what occurred and the age of the students.

Rachel Healy, a spokeswoman for the Maine chapter of the ACLU, said the ACLU agreed to represent Mansmann in the appeal hearing Wednesday, but will conduct a more thorough evaluation to determine whether to take on the case.

“Our interest in this is that we see this as potentially a misuse of the bullying statute,” Healy said. She said the three-day suspension by the school also could be considered punishment for “constitutionally protected free speech” which would be potentially illegal.

Norris, Mansmann’s mother, said that at earlier meetings with school officials, including Wolfrom, Shedd and others, her daughter was assured that no punishment was forthcoming.

“We were told she would not be punished,” Norris said.

When asked whether school officials gave Mansmann assurances about punishment, Wolfrom said, “there sure is a lot of misinformation out there.”

Norris said she has audio recordings of the meetings, and was turning them over to the school district as part of the appeal process.

The school has wide latitude to discipline students for bullying, including counseling sessions, detention, in-school suspension or up to 10 days of out-of-school suspension.

When asked why the punishment for Mansmann was on the more severe side, Wolfrom said she couldn’t comment on the severity.

“There’s lots of things taken into consideration,” Wolfrom said. “We try not to suspend students for the most part.”

Wolfrom said on Wednesday that she didn’t know if other students had recently been given three or more days of out-of-school suspension, and if so what the offenses were for.

According to state statistics, Cape Elizabeth School Department gave nine students out-of-school suspensions in the 2017-18 school year, the most recent for which statistics are available. In 2016-17 there were two out-of-school suspensions, and five in the 2015-16 school year.

Christena Gikas, 17, a Cape Elizabeth High School senior, said it seems to her that the district is emphasizing the bullying case more than sexual assault.

Gikas believes the school spent more time and resources investigating Mansmann’s sticky-note incident than the sexual assault Gikas reported to the school in 2018.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Gikas said. “It seems like they’re portraying victims as villains.”

Gikas said the school found that an assault on Gikas was “more likely than not” to have happened, but the high school did not hand down any punishment. She said she was assaulted in 2017 while she was sleeping.

“They (school officials) talked to my perpetrator, but there were no consequences for him,” Gikas said.

Victims are not informed of school punishments given to the students that harassed or assaulted them, Stankard said.

Gikas said she talked to police, but decided not to file a formal police complaint because she didn’t want to go through the court process.

Fenton, the Cape Elizabeth police chief, said his department does not have any ongoing investigations into alleged sexual assaults in Cape Elizabeth.

He also said the police have not opened any new investigation into the claim in the notes about a rapist at the high school because he does not know who the accused person is, and no one has come forward to make a specific report about a related incident to the department.

“How those disclosures come forward, that’s all up to the victim,” Fenton said. “I definitely wouldn’t go out there and force somebody to come in who wasn’t ready.”

Wolfrom and Shedd told the Press Herald last week that they were confident that there is not a student who is a rapist attending Cape Elizabeth High School.

Unlike school officials, Fenton said he could not answer whether there is a rapist at Cape Elizabeth High School. He said he believes the community is safe, but he does not want to discount any victims who have not reported assaults.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying definitely yes or no to that question,” Fenton said.

Asked whether the decision to suspend Mansmann might discourage other students from reporting alleged sexual assaults, the police chief said he could not make assumptions about how victims feel.

“How an individual victim is going to react to this situation or if they are going to react, I can’t deduce that,” Fenton said. “I wouldn’t want to suggest I have that knowledge.”

In June, at the same meeting that the girls first raised their concerns about the high school’s handling of sexual assault allegations, the School Board approved an updated policy on harassment, including sexual harassment. A subcommittee is reviewing the procedures for that new policy.

In his letter, Shedd detailed the efforts the school district made to separate investigate the allegations and the rumors he said sprung up surrounding the notes left in the bathrooms. He said that the whole process has been a learning experience for school administrators navigating the “tricky nuances of Title IX” as wells as the students.

“The students who posted the sticky notes made a bad choice even though their intentions were good,” Shedd said in his email ” People were hurt by those bad choices.

“The students regret their choices, I’m sure. They will learn. We don’t expect perfection of our students. We freely give second chances.”

For her part, Mansmann said in her Instagram post that she will refuse to remain silent.

“We cannot go back and undo the inexcusable actions of the past, but we can prevent future incidences from taking place. I want to come together, to do better and show the generations after us that this is where it ended.”

 

 

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