School Slow to Inform, Protect, Parents Say





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Voicing concerns about security issues, sexual harrassment education and better communication between school officials and parents, community members attended a forum at Willard Middle School last night that was held in response to the sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl from that school.

After the opening remarks by Willard staff, police and district officials, many parents expressed anger about the time gap between the occurrence of the incident and when the school released information. Parents yelled at the school officials when they felt their questions were not fully answered.

Willard Principal Gail Hojo said the school knew something was wrong, so school officials interviewed several students the day after the incident. When, on Oct. 27, one of their statements indicated there had been sexual activity on campus, the police were called immediately. After that, the school really did not know how serious the situation was until Nov. 6, when they wrote a letter to send out to parents, after information had been released by the press, she said.

"There is something wrong with our system if the community finds out about incidents such as this through rumors on the streets or in the newspaper," said City Councilmember Kriss Worthington at the forum. "I feel that the city is accountable for not getting the information out to the community, and I apologize. How come the shed was open? How can little kids be doing this to other little kids? We need to stop it! There are specific actions we need to take to prevent anything like this from happening in the future. The city is committed to making sure we do better in other difficult situations."

Many community members said lack of security is another issue that needs to be addressed. One parent said a bushy area in front of the school was too

dangerous, while another commented on the lack of lighting at night. Parents said the school should lock all of its gates, especially the shed where the incident first occurred.

"It is ironic, but not unusual, that our lights are not working tonight," said Timothy Moellering, afterschool coordinator at Willard. "The field usually lights up the entire campus. Safety issues are being addressed, though. Last year was the first time we had a supervised afterschool program, and this year we got a grant to hire two police officers who actually started working here early last month."

One parent said she thought the district is doing all it can.

"I think (safety) is going to get better," Teri Barr said. "It always gets better when the community is involved. Unfortunately, more action is always taken after something happens than to prevent it."

Kirk Hewitt, Healthy Start coordinator at Willard, discussed how the issue of sexual harassment is being taught to children. Two students who were laughing about the incident were referred to a mental health therapist, he said. The school is continuing its Second Start Program, with lessons this week about peer pressure, and if they still need it there is drop-in counseling at lunch that students have taken advantage of so far, he said.

Hojo also said a crisis response team will be created on campus, and suggested that more forums be held for parents on how to address serious issues such as sexual assault.

The suspects in the case are under extended suspension pending expulsion, said Chris Lim, associate superintendent of instruction. The longest possible punishment is a two-semester expulsion, because education code requires that students be allowed to return after a year.

While most parents were concerned about the possibility of the boys returning, the father of one of the boys disagreed.

"The young boys involved are children too," he said. "We talk about them as if they were monsters, but right now only three are in custody. They didn't all have sex. We need to know details before we pass judgments - especially on kids."

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