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This School District Has Allegedly Threatened Girls for Reporting Rape

“I blamed myself for a long time,” one survivor told VICE News. “I think a lot of that was because of the way that the school handled it.”
November 18, 2021, 4:07pm

Nikki Wombwell dreamed of getting into a good college. She recalled getting straight A’s. And she was terrified of having a suspension on her record.

Then, in 2014, when she was 15 years old, Wombwell tried to report that she had been raped in the woods near her school, Myers Park School in Charlotte, North Carolina, by a classmate. And, in response, the school principal suggested that Wombwell could be suspended for having sex on campus if her account turned out to be untrue, according to interviews with Wombwell and a lawsuit she filed in 2019.

Wombwell didn’t pursue an investigation. “Nothing happened,” recalled Wombwell, now 22. 

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Wombwell is one of multiple women to say that they tried to report sexual assault to officials at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, only to meet with indifference or even aggression. One woman, Serena Evans, said that after she was raped in a Myers Park bathroom in 2016, she, too, was threatened with suspension. Another former student told VICE News that she reported being raped to Myers Park officials in late 2014 and they seemed to believe her—but said that, essentially, there was next to nothing she or they could do about it. And yet another woman has anonymously filed a still-pending lawsuit against Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, in a case that sounds deeply similar to Wombwell’s.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is now in the midst of yet another scandal over a school’s handling of sexual assault allegations. Earlier this month, a 15-year-old student at Hawthorne Academy of Health Sciences, another high school in the district, accused the school of suspending her after she reported a male classmate for sexual assault. 

In addition to being suspended, the girl was told to take a weekend class called Sexual Harassment Is Preventable. 

Wombwell is one of multiple women to say that they tried to report sexual assault to officials at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, only to meet with indifference or even aggression.

“Up until this point, when I thought about the fact that they threatened to suspend me if I did an investigation, I always sort of thought it was a threat to stop me from speaking out,” Wombwell said. “And so to see them actually suspending a student—I can’t help but see myself in her and wonder what would have happened to me if I had decided to go through with an investigation.”

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Wombwell said that the rape, and the way the administration failed to really handle it, shaped the rest of her high school career. She couldn’t go to football games, she said, because her alleged rapist was in the marching band. When he showed up at prom, she got so upset she left early. She still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“I blamed myself for a long time,” she told VICE News. “I think a lot of that was because of the way that the school handled it.”

In late 2016, when Evans told a Myers Park administrator that, just days earlier, she’d been raped in a school bathroom, she felt like she was walking through a dream. In her shock and pain, the world had gone fuzzy.

But she says the administrator’s response still tore through that haze.

The administrator, Evans and her mother told VICE News in an interview, said that if her alleged rapist was found innocent, Evans would be suspended for having been in the boys’ bathroom. Evans’ mother, Kay Mayes, said that the administrator also warned them to keep quiet about what had happened.

Inside her head, Evans recalled screaming, “Why don’t you believe me?”

In emails to Myers Park administrators from the months after the alleged rape, Mayes pleaded for Evans’ alleged attacker to undergo counseling. But, by March 2017, Mayes had had enough.

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“I no longer believe that you (the school, CMS) are going to give me any info and updates, nor do anything about the situation on Serena's behalf,” she wrote. “I am tired of waiting around for you all to reach back out.”

“CMS [Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools] cannot provide information about matters involving student discipline or specific cases in which there are ongoing investigations, pending or settled litigation, or otherwise involve confidential student or staff data,” a spokesperson for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools told VICE News in an email, in response to a detailed list of allegations in this story. “Likewise, CMS cannot provide information about specific personnel matters such as employee suspensions.”

“District and Board of Education leadership take allegations of sexual misconduct seriously,” the spokesperson added.

Evans, now 20, said that she did “everything right.”

“I was a star athlete. I never skipped class, never skipped school, I got good grades,” said Evans. “I had never been into the woods. I didn’t party, didn’t do drugs. I didn’t hook up with a bunch of people. This can still happen to people that literally do everything right. I think that’s what’s really hitting people now.”

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Evans has not sued Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and Wombwell settled her lawsuit after, she said, it became clear that real change would not come from the courts. (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools did not reply to a specific question about the  settlement, but the Charlotte Ledger has previously reported that the settlement didn’t include an admission of wrongdoing on the district’s part.)

“I blamed myself for a long time,” Wombwell told VICE News. “I think a lot of that was because of the way that the school handled it.”

The other woman who has sued over sexual assault allegations at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is known in court documents only as “Jane Doe.” According to her ongoing lawsuit, Doe was a junior in 2015 when a male student pulled her into the woods near campus and sexually assaulted her.

When Doe emerged from the woods, “Doe appeared both distressed and disheveled. Her hair was in disarray, she had mud on her clothing, her glasses were broken, and there was semen on her shirt,” an amended version of the lawsuit’s complaint alleges. But even after Doe allegedly told a local school resource officer that she’d been sexually assaulted, two of the defendants in the lawsuit did not take “a statement from Ms. Doe or otherwise meaningfully investigate her complaint.”

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Instead, per the lawsuit, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg officials accepted the alleged attacker’s claim that the encounter was consensual. “Furthermore, none of the defendants offered to transport Ms. Doe to a hospital or otherwise assist her in reporting the rape to local law enforcement.” 

The school resource officer also allegedly “warned Ms. Doe that if she was not telling the truth about the sexual assault she could be charged with a crime”—an echo of the warning Wombwell said she’d received the year before. The officer denied this allegation in one legal filing.

In court papers, the defendants have broadly denied wrongdoing.

Administrators for the school said in those filings that they didn’t take a statement from Doe because her parents prohibited it; they also didn’t take her to the hospital, they said, “or otherwise assist her in reporting a rape to law enforcement because she did not report a rape at that time.” The school resource officer said that he filed a noncriminal police report of Doe’s account, which “reflects what she told him.” He also claimed that he didn’t go to the hospital because Doe’s mother wanted “a detective to come to interview her daughter.”

The school resource officer also allegedly “warned Ms. Doe that if she was not telling the truth about the sexual assault she could be charged with a crime.”

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The case remains open. But Doe ended up leaving Myers Park, as well as her job at the local mall. According to the complaint, her fear of running into her alleged assailant, “given the lack of consequences for his sexual attack against her, has affected what jobs she takes, where she works, and what shifts she accepts.”

The mother of the student from Hawthorne Academy who reported being sexually assaulted, whom VICE News is not naming, said that her daughter is just trying to go to school like normal. But realizing that this isn’t the first time a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school has been accused of mishandling a sexual misconduct allegation has been extremely frustrating, she said.

“My daughter constantly questioned whether she had done the right thing or not. And I wanted her to know that she did,” the mother said. “And I wanted CMS [Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools] to be aware that these issues are still going on.”

Police had also investigated her daughter’s claims and the male classmate had confessed to the cops, the student’s mother told VICE News. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department didn’t return a VICE News request for charges connected to the case, but local news outlet WBTV reported that a minor was charged with sexual battery in connection to the report.

Hawthorne Academy, however, found that there was no evidence that the district’s sexual harassment policy had been violated, per a document provided to VICE News. Instead, the school found that there was “evidence of a violation” of a rule against falsifying information. 

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The mother said that Hawthorne Academy Assistant Principal Nina Adams basically told her, “What the police investigation concludes had nothing to do with the school investigation. We didn’t find anything. We have to dismiss the case.”

Her daughter’s suspension has been put on hold, the mother said. Days after WBTV shared their accounts, the outlet reported that another Hawthorne Academy student had also been urged to stay quiet about being sexually assaulted. The student said that the school claimed to have looked at video footage of the location where the incident allegedly occurred and said they didn’t find anything.

Adams didn’t reply to a VICE News request for comment.

After WBTV reported on Wombwell and Doe’s stories in June, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education posted a statement to Facebook about the cases. 

“No matter what we say or how we say it, it will sound to some as if we are making excuses,” the statement read, adding that the WBTV story “contained numerous misstatements of fact that compel us to correct the record.” For example: “Neither case was rape.”

When it comes to Wombwell, publicly known as Jill Roe at the time, the statement asserted that the then–Myers Park principal didn’t learn about her claims until two months after the alleged incident.

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“He immediately investigated the incident, including meeting with Ms. Roe and her parents. After that meeting, measures were put in place to keep the students separated,” the statement read. “Neither Ms. Roe or her parents voiced disagreement over those measures or took any further action—they did not contact the learning community superintendent; they did not contact the superintendent; and they did not contact board members. Instead, Roe filed a lawsuit five years later.”

The statement was soon deleted. 

“It landed in such a way that it sounded like ‘Don’t trust victims,’ and that was a terrible message, so that’s why it was taken down,” said Elyse Dashew, chair and at-large representative for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. She said she did not write the statement. “That was not the message that was intended.”

Despite their efforts, Wombwell and her fellow advocates say they’ve seen little change.

In July, school board members were set to meet with survivors and experts to address the burgeoning crisis over sexual assault at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. But after Wombwell asked to attend, the meeting was cancelled entirely. In an email obtained by VICE News, a board member said that they “should not meet with individuals that have potential or past claims against the district.” (By that point, Wombwell had already settled her lawsuit against the district.)

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Wombwell and Evans have now launched a group, Amplify Survivors, that’s meant to support people who were sexually assaulted, and they’re continuing to call for further accountability from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. A Change.org petition about Wombwell’s case has garnered more than 75,000 signatures. But despite their efforts, Wombwell and her fellow advocates say they’ve seen little change. 

In early October, more than 100 students walked out of another school in the district, Olympic High School, after a football player was allowed to keep playing for the school team despite the fact that he’d been recently charged with a felony sex crime. Another student had also been recently charged with raping a girl at Olympic High School.

Afterward, two players on the volleyball team said they were suspended for one game for participating in the walkout, which the school’s athletic director described as an “unapproved protest.” (That director didn’t reply to a VICE News request for comment.)

“For these things to still be happening, even under this amount of public pressure, it's really disheartening.”

“Honestly, I’m just disgusted that they let a football player who has sexual assault allegations against him play with an ankle monitor,” one suspended player told the Charlotte Observer. “But because I speak out for feeling unsafe, I get punished and not allowed to play in a game.”

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"Even after all of this advocacy work to try and get CMS' attention and to stop these things from happening, the Olympic case happened after we'd been protesting for months. The new Hawthorne case happened after we'd been protesting for months,” Wombwell said. “For these things to still be happening, even under this amount of public pressure, it's really disheartening.”

A current student at a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school said that at a recent meeting with school officials, administrators warned them that posting on social media about sexual assault allegations in the district could imperil the student’s ability to go to college.

Informed of the student’s allegation, Dashew sounded confused. 

“What?” she said. “I would ask the student to share that concern with a school board member, so that we can address it … That, yep, definitely raises some questions.”

Dashew declined to answer multiple questions about specific allegations against Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She was, she said, constrained by confidentiality concerns. 

“It’s really, really frustrating that we can’t speak to the specifics of certain issues,” Dashew said. “Also, with things like student suspensions, we don’t actually administer those suspensions, and so oftentimes we don’t necessarily know about them unless it comes to us in an appeal. And so that’s why we’ve been really, really cautious about speaking out.”

A current student at a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school said that at a recent meeting with school officials, administrators warned them that posting on social media about sexual assault allegations in the district could imperil the student’s ability to go to college.

Still, in the wake of the reports, district Superintendent Earnest Winston assembled a task force to review the district’s policies around Title IX, the landmark civil rights law that protects against sex-based discrimination. When Aidan Finnell, a 16-year-old student at Myers Park, joined the group, she was initially optimistic.  But Finnell said that, now, she’s not confident that its suggestions will be implemented.

“There was a really big emphasis on how things needed to be kept hush-hush and secret,” she said of the task force. “It just turned more into students saying the same things over and over again, in a room full of adults, and being told that most of what we were saying wasn’t possible or that we’d said it before.”

One adult at the task force meetings also suggested that news reports of sexual misconduct at the district could not be trusted, Finnell said. 

“The superintendent anticipates a report from his Title IX task force in the next few weeks,” a Charlotte-Mecklenburg spokesperson told VICE News in an email. “He will review the report and plans to enact reforms as appropriate.”

Since the news about Hawthorne broke, the school’s principal and assistant principal have been suspended, with pay; officials did not give a reason for the suspensions. But that’s also what happened to the principal who ran Myers Park High School at the time of Wombwell, Evans, and Doe’s allegations—before he was moved to another job with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

He makes the same six-figure salary.

“We’re literally talking to a brick wall,” Evans said. “It’s not just a Charlotte thing. It’s not just a CMS thing. It is a national issue.”