Nikki Wombwell is one of multiple students who has accused Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools​ of mishandling her sexual assault report.
Nikki Wombwell is one of multiple students who has accused Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools of mishandling her sexual assault report. (Cassandra Giraldo for VICE News)

Inside the Sexual Assault Scandal Plaguing a High School District

The federal government has investigated a Charlotte district at least three times over Title IX, which guards against sex discrimination in education.

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Myers Park High School is nestled in an affluent, suburban-esque oasis of a neighborhood. There’s a country club, complete with a golf course, right across the street from the 62-acre campus. Leafy woods, trees crowned with ivy, surround several sides of it. It’s a vision of an all-American high school. 

It is also a school in a district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, that the federal government has recently investigated at least three times over its handling of Title IX, the civil rights law that protects against sex discrimination in education.

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One of those investigations stemmed from an incident in November 2015, when a Myers Park student said she had been sexually assaulted by a classmate in the woods surrounding the school. Just days later, officials at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools wrapped up a separate federal investigation by promising that the district would reform its approach to Title IX.

Now, current and former students want the feds to step in yet again. Over the last year, multiple people have publicly accused the district of silencing students who try to speak up about sexual harassment and violence.

At least four women, including the student allegedly assaulted in 2015, have said that, after they reported being sexually assaulted in or around Myers Park, officials failed to take appropriate action or even threatened them with suspension if their stories didn’t hold up. In October, students walked out of Olympic High School after one student, a football player, was charged with a felony sex crime—but still allowed to play a game, with an ankle monitor. 

A student at another school in the district, Hawthorne Academy, said in November that she had told both police and school administrators that she’d been sexually assaulted. The police made an arrest in the case, but the school said this student had filed a false report, suspended her, and required her to attend a class called Sexual Harassment Is Preventable. Another student also said that Hawthorne administrators had required her to sign what she called an “NDA” after she reported a male classmate for exposing himself.

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Now, current and former students want the feds to step in yet again. Over the last year, multiple people have publicly accused the district of silencing students who try to speak up about sexual harassment and violence.

Exactly fifty years ago on June 23, 1972, Congress passed Title IX. But the controversy in Charlotte suggests that many students still slip through the cracks of that landmark legislation’s lofty goal—particularly in elementary, middle, and high schools, which face widespread sexual violence but receive far less attention than Title IX cases in colleges.

On the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the Biden administration announced that it would roll back large swathes of Trump-era changes to the law. But that process will take months and is certain to kick off battles over what, exactly, schools should do in sexual misconduct cases. 

Nearly 15,000 incidents of sexual violence were reported at K-12 schools in 2017-2018, the most recent year for which Department of Education data is available. That’s a 55-percent spike from the 2015-2016 school year, which saw about 9,600 reported incidents of sexual violence—and, likely, still an undercount. Compared to moneyed colleges, K-12 schools are also far less likely to be well-equipped to deal with sexual violence allegations, experts say, even though the victims they’re tasked with protecting are, overwhelmingly, children. 

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But there’s also a darker truth at work here: Sexual assault is, particularly for girls, often dismissed as a part of growing up.

Nikki Wombwell once felt lucky that she got to go to Myers Park. She had looked forward to high school; Myers Park had a good reputation, and she was excited about the theater program.

Now, at 23, she’s one of the former students accusing Myers Park of mishandling her sexual assault report and trying to get Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to change. She knows much more about the dangers of school and the violence that students—children—can do to one another.

“It's a lot easier to think of a college-level, 18, 19, 20-year old frat bro doing something like that. But when you have to face a 15-year-old child who … lives with his parents and is just a kid, is capable of rape—people don't like to think about that,” Wombwell told me. “They don't like to think about why our culture contributes to that sort of thing happening. There's a lot of ugly truth you have to look in the mirror to if you admit that.”

For teens looking for an escape from teachers and parents, the woods around Myers Park High School provide the perfect cover. But, in the last few years, the woods have also become a symbol of the ghastly underbelly of high school. 

Wombwell is one of at least three former Myers Park students who have said that they were sexually assaulted in those woods. At 14, she started dating the student who would later assault her, she told me. He was 15 years old.

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“I don't think I have had a single first, sexually, that was completely consensual.”

“He was very pushy the entire time we were together,” Wombwell said. “It was, ‘Oh, like, you let me kiss you, can I touch your breasts?’ Or like, ‘Oh, you know, it doesn't count if you're wearing underwear.’ And then it was, ‘Oh, we already did it with your underwear on. What's the difference?’ And then it was, ‘Oh, I did it to you. You have to do it to me.’ And it just kept escalating and escalating.”

“I don't think I have had a single first, sexually, that was completely consensual,” she continued.

She tried to break up with him, but a couple weeks later, in October 2014, he messaged her that he had brought a gun to school, Wombwell said in interviews and a lawsuit she later filed. If she didn’t have sex with him, he threatened to hurt himself, she said.

“I met him after class and he took me to the woods, and that's when he raped me,” Wombwell said.

Wombwell said she tried to tell school officials that she had been raped. But the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officer tasked with serving Myers Park High School told her that what had happened didn’t constitute rape, according to Wombwell’s lawsuit. Its then-principal allegedly told her that, if she moved forward with a “formal” report and authorities couldn’t substantiate her account, she could be suspended for having sex on campus.

No one ever told her about her rights under Title IX, Wombwell said.

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Title IX is probably best known as the law that requires schools to treat boys and girls’ sports teams equally. But it does so much more. Under Title IX, schools are required to not only to implement a formal grievance process for handling complaints of sex discrimination—which is what sexual harassment and violence is—but to also offer students who alleged sexual misconduct supportive measures, such as separating accused perpetrators from their victims. Schools are also tasked with protecting purported victims from retaliation.

“Ultimately, Title IX, as a civil rights law, is about protecting access to education. And the reality is, that sexual harassment, including including sexual assault, has a very real impact on a lot of students and can make it very difficult for them to feel safe and supported to learn in school,” said Shiwali Patel, director of justice for student survivors and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “Schools have to take steps to ensure that those students who have experienced sexual harassment feel safe, feel supported, feel like they can thrive academically.”

If a school doesn’t follow Title IX, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is supposed to make them. Between 2015 and 2017, the office investigated Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools at least three times.

In November 2015, the office concluded a “compliance review” of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and found that the district had violated Title IX because, among other things, its grievance process “did not provide for an adequate, reliable, and impartial investigation.”

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In 2017, the Office of Civil Rights released its finding of the investigation into the complaint by the student who said she had been sexually assaulted in the woods around Myers Park. In that case, the office generally found in the district’s favor, although it did uncover that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had violated Title IX when its officials failed to let the involved students know that they had closed the investigation and labeled it “mutual sexual contact.” 

In the third investigation, the results of which were also released in 2017, the Office of Civil Rights found once again that the district’s handling of the matter didn’t fully comply with Title IX. (Although the case involved an allegation of sex discrimination, it was not a sexual assault case.) 

If a school doesn’t follow Title IX, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is supposed to make them. Between 2015 and 2017, the office investigated Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools at least three times.

Patel, who used to work for the Office of Civil Rights, told me that, in her opinion, her old employer “absolutely” needs to investigate Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools again.

“When schools punish survivors who come forward, they're sending a strong message to the students, to the community, that not only will they tolerate sexual harassment, but that they're not going to take it seriously, that it's not safe to come forward as a survivor who's actively seeking support and help from the school,” Patel said. “It's very concerning.”

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As of February 2022, the district remained under federal monitoring, according to documents obtained by VICE News. The Office of Civil Rights didn’t respond to a VICE News request for an interview for this story, or to a list of questions.

For years, Wombwell tried to bury what had happened. “I got really into every single extracurricular activity I could possibly be in,” she recalled. “I obsessed over school. I did everything I possibly could to not have a single second to think about it.”

That worked, sort of, for a while. But then, Wombwell said, she was sexually assaulted in college. (About 26 percent of female college undergraduates, as well as almost 7 percent of male college students, experience sexual assault through incapacitation, physical force, or violence, according to RAINN, the nation’s premier anti-sexual assault organization.) Wombwell tried to kill herself. She dropped out. She went to a mental health facility. She never returned to school.

Eventually, she came across a news story about the Myers Park student who alleged being sexually assaulted in November 2015 and realized just how similar their stories were. Known as “Jane Doe” in court papers, the student sued Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 2018. In 2019, Wombwell sued Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, too.

She spent more than a year in court, before settling in 2021 for $50,000. 

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“It was made pretty clear to me throughout the process that I wasn't going to get policy change through the legal system and that only the Board of Education had the power to make that legal change,” Wombwell said. “If I wanted to get people reassigned or fired or whatever, that was going to have to happen through public advocacy, because it wasn't going to happen through the legal system. And that's what I cared about.”

Wombwell signed her settlement agreement over Zoom, she told me, because she had checked in again to a mental health facility.

“It still affects me every single day,” Wombwell said. “No amount of money can make up for that, to be honest.”

More women came forward to say that, they, too, had been sexually assaulted by classmates at Myers Park.

Wombwell went public in June 2021, revealing in news articles and on social media that she was Jill Roe. The floodgates seemed to burst: More women came forward to say that, they, too, had been sexually assaulted by classmates at Myers Park. One woman, Serena Evans, said she was raped in a school bathroom in 2016, when she was just 15 years old; when she tried to report it to a school administrator, he also threatened her with suspension if her allegation didn’t pan out, said Evans, who recently sued over her allegations. Evans and Wombwell have since joined forces to fight for change in the district.

Doe’s lawsuit is ongoing. Myers Park’s then-principal was suspended, then reassigned after an investigation to another role in the district, where he makes more than $150,000. Two administrators at Hawthorne Academy have also been reassigned

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VICE News reached out to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, the officer named in Doe and Wombwell’s lawsuit, and other district officials with detailed lists of questions for this story. Only the attorney for the police officer responded, saying, in part, “Cases should be tried in courtrooms—not newsrooms.”

In court papers, the defendants in Wombwell and Doe’s lawsuits have broadly denied wrongdoing. 

In those filings, Myers Park administrators said they didn’t take a statement from Doe about her allegations because her parents prohibited it, and didn’t take her to the hospital “or otherwise assist her in reporting a rape to law enforcement because she did not report a rape at that time.” The police officer said that he filed a noncriminal police report about Doe’s account, which “reflects what she told him.” 

That officer was ultimately dismissed from Wombwell’s lawsuit ahead of her settlement. A judge found that he had not acted with “deliberate indifference” or obstructed justice. That judge also determined that, as a police officer, he was entitled to qualified immunity. The principal also denied that he had done anything to discourage Wombwell from taking further action with her case.

In an emailed statement last year, a spokesperson for the district told VICE News, “District and Board of Education leadership take allegations of sexual misconduct seriously.”

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“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,” the spokesperson said, in response to a detailed list of questions. “Likewise, CMS cannot provide information about specific personnel matters such as employee suspensions.”

Doe, Wombwell, and one of the Hawthorne Academy accusers have all shared a lawyer: Laura Dunn.

Dunn radiates meticulousness and unflappability—qualities that make it easy to see why rape survivors, adrift and alone, may gravitate towards her, and why Buzzfeed News once bestowed her with the title “The Woman Students Call When They’ve Been Raped On Campus.” She is, quite literally, forever committed to the cause: Dunn has the numeral “IX” tattooed on her wrist, in reference to Title IX. 

Dunn also knows, firsthand, what it’s like to feel failed by the institutions meant to protect you. While a student at the University of Wisconsin, she reported being raped by two fellow student-athletes, as multiple news outlets have detailed. After a nine-month investigation, the school decided against punishment. Dunn then went to the Department of Education, which, two years after Dunn graduated, decided that the University of Wisconsin had not erred. Dunn became an advocate against campus sexual assault—and, seven years to the day Dunn says she was raped, then-Vice President Joe Biden invited her to an event unveiling guidance that urged schools to investigate misconduct more thoroughly and threatened them with consequences if they did not.

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“It was just really powerful to realize that, despite not getting any justice after fighting for seven years, I actually created justice for others,” Dunn recalled. 

In months of conversations about Title IX, there is only one time where Dunn gets emotional: when she talks about how, in 2017, under the Trump administration, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that she would be rescinding the Obama-era guidance. Her changes to Title IX, completed in 2020, “significantly weakened protections under Title IX,” Patel said.

“It limited the definition of sexual harassment, so schools would have to ignore a lot of reports under their Title IX policies,” Patel said. “They're very specific that the assault has to have occurred within an education program or activity, despite the impact on the survivor’s education. So, for example, if someone is raped at an off-campus party and then they share a class with their rapist, that they're going to still face the same trauma and triggers, regardless of where the assault occurred. But the DeVos rule doesn't take that into account.”

Although the Biden administration has proposed to roll back many of the changes enacted by DeVos, her rules remain in effect and will do so until the lengthy rollback process is completed. Plus, if Republicans win control of Congress in the November midterms, Title IX could once again become a political football. 

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Last year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston convened a task force meant to evaluate Title IX in the district. That task force issued recommendations in December. Then, in April 2022, the Board of Education fired Winston. An investigation had uncovered, among other things, concerns about the district’s handling of Title IX. 

Now, it’s not clear what, if anything, the district has done with the Title IX task force’s recommendations.

In court papers, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education has defended its approach to sex discrimination cases.

“The Board has adopted, implemented, and published adequate and effective policies to prevent sexual harassment and discrimination and to ensure prompt investigation and redress of complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination,” it said.

There’s a term for what Wombwell, and the other Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools accusers, say happened to them: institutional betrayal.

One 2013 study of institutional betrayal found that, out of more than 500 college students, nearly 70 percent experienced at least one “unwanted sexual experience.” Of those, 46 percent said that they had been betrayed by their institution in some way, such as by institutions’ creation of an environment where unwanted sexual experiences became common or likely. 

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“When someone is harmed by their institution, they might be further dissuaded from reporting and get any help at all,” Patel said. “What's the point in coming forward then, if that's going to be the experience? And then that may send a message to other students, that discourages them from coming forward.”

In other words, it’s exactly the kind of experience that Title IX and the Office of Civil Rights are supposed to safeguard against.

“I think a lot of K-12 schools have intentionally hidden information about Title IX and people's rights. I challenge you to go on the website, pick any school district you want, try to find out what to do if you reported a sexual assault,” Dunn said. “My guess is you're going to go to the student code of conduct. You're not going to see any Title IX coordinator. Maybe there's a provision on sexual harassment. Maybe not. The schools have just basically looked the other way and have been allowed to for a long time.”

“I think a lot of K-12 schools have intentionally hidden information about Title IX and people's rights.”

For Wombwell and the other current and former students trying to change Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, their campaign can sometimes seem like a relentless series of institutional betrayals. 

In March, Wombwell, Evans, and their allies showed up at a meeting for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education, hoping to convince its members to take action on Title IX.

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Serena Evans said she was raped in a Myers Park school bathroom in 2016, when she was 15 years old. Evans is now fighting for change in the school district.

Serena Evans said she was raped in a Myers Park school bathroom in 2016, when she was 15 years old. Evans is now fighting for change in the school district.(Cassandra Giraldo for VICE News)

The Board of Education’s meeting amphitheatre was packed. Once the public comment section started, many of the speakers spent their time trying to convince the school board to stop teaching various books, such as The Girl Who Fell From the Sky and Maus. One student who spoke did bring up the recent sexual assault allegations. “It is my duty to say that some of our some of the rape victims, it seems, feel as though they're not heard and your job at the Board of Education is to make sure that they feel heard, respected, and welcome in their school,” he told the board.

The plan had been for Wombwell and Evans to share their stories. Then, their allies would share anonymous testimonials, collected by a group started in part by the duo, of sexual assault and harassment at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

A few people managed to read the accounts. One shared the story of a student who said they were raped as a freshman. (“I reported it to the school because he went there too. They did nothing for me, regardless of me saying I felt unsafe on campus.”) Another read the account of a student who said they were first sexually harassed at school at 13 years old. (“I go to school with my assailants. They go about their day like normal. I sit next to boys who harassed and assaulted me for years.”)

Then, a staffer told Board of Education Chair Elyse Dashew that board rules don’t let people read statements from individuals who aren’t signed up to speak. And when Wombwell’s fiancé got up to share an account, Dashew cut him off.

“People sign up to speak for themselves,” Dashew said. “So anybody else who has their own testimonial or feedback—”

“How do you expect a rape survivor to stand in front of the people that threatened them with suspension?” Evans interrupted. “Are you serious?”

People in the crowd started clapping. “Every story matters!” someone shouted.

Dashew tried to insist that Wombwell’s fiancé stop speaking. People started yelling. Finally, Dashew gave up. “OK, we'll break all the rules tonight,” she announced.

Wombwell burst into tears. Evans wrapped her arms around her.

“They will do anything they can to silence survivors instead of just actually doing the very reasonable basic things we're asking them to do,” Wombwell said minutes later, her voice shaking. “They care so much about their reputation and so little about their students.”

“This is happening all over the country.”

It was, perhaps, the last betrayal. Wombwell had next to no faith that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools would ever listen to her or her allies. She wants the Office of Civil Rights to investigate the district, again. She wants anybody who might have covered up sexual assault to lose their jobs. And she doesn’t want what happened to her to happen to anyone else, ever, anywhere.

“This is happening all over the country,” Wombwell said. “Title IX policy needs to be updated. The changes that Betsy DeVos made to Title IX need to be undone, because they're horrific to survivors.”

If she had been the only woman to come forward, Wombwell thinks she could have moved on from what happened in the woods, from how she was treated once she rushed out of them.

“I think I've done enough healing that I could work on healing for myself and maybe radically accept the things that I have to let go of, to heal,” Wombwell said. “But seeing that it wasn't just me, it's still happening—I can't move on and let it keep happening. This is so much bigger than me. I have to do something about it. I just have to.”