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‘I want to scream it from the rooftops’

Sexual harassment in Johnson Creek Schools and perceived lack of district response leaves one family searching for answers

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‘I want to scream it from the rooftops’

JOHNSON CREEK — The letter to the judge includes three questions. In the margins are the judge’s scrawled answers.

The writer was Dr. Michael Garvey, superintendent of the Johnson Creek School District. The judge was Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Bennett Brantmeier. The subject: A temporary restraining order (TRO) against a 14-year-old male student who had been accused of sexually harassing a 14-year-old female classmate.

The three questions in the letter, obtained by the Daily Union, were seeking clarification on what the district must do to comply with the court order.

“Does the order prevent the respondent from attending the HS?” Garvey asked, to which Brantmeier simply wrote “No.”

“If the respondent is allowed to attend school, does the order prevent the respondent from being in the same classroom or cafeteria as the petitioner?” Garvey wrote.

“No, on temporary restraining order basis, respondent is not to talk to or communicate with petitioner by any means,” Brantmeier’s response read.

“If the respondent is allowed to attend school, does the order recommend that the two students have different passing times or that one or both are escorted to their next class?” Garvey’s final query asked.

“That is up to the district. Order does not require it,” Brantmeier wrote before signing and stamping the document.

Johnson Creek School District

A 14-year-old Johnson Creek High School student exposed himself to a classmate on a school bus, according to police reports, leading to citations from the police department and an injunction from the Jefferson County Circuit Court. 

Garvey insists he was clarifying a contradictory court order. But the girl’s mother says the questions are examples of the district’s failure to address the problem. She contends that the school didn’t do enough to protect her daughter, who has an individualized education plan (IEP) to help with poor social and decision-making skills.

“They’re not handling it,” the mother said. “They let it fly. Being a small district is no excuse to take the least amount of action possible.”

But Garvey — who declined to comment on the specifics of the case, citing student privacy — said the district followed its policies and did all it could.

“I can’t talk student specifics. I have to protect her rights,” Garvey said. “Because I’m protecting the rights of the students in the building. We followed our procedures; we followed the judge’s orders and whether Mom believes we did that or not, which she doesn’t, I can’t speak to that.”

On Feb. 5, just two weeks after Garvey’s letter dated Jan. 24, Brantmeier granted an injunction — a two-year restraining order preventing the students from having contact and forcing the boy out of the district.

But the incidents began months earlier, in November 2019.

Police reports, disciplinary records and a narrative written to the court — all obtained by the Daily Union — as well as interviews with the mother and girl, suggest a pattern of harassment by the male student. The documents show this wasn’t the only student targeted and the district’s efforts weren’t enough to stop him.

The first incident came while the male and female students were dating, according to a police report.

On Nov. 7, the male student sent sexually explicit messages to one of the female student’s friends, the police report states. The friend showed the messages to police in December and told an officer that these messages “made her very uncomfortable,” according to the report.

The boy was cited for unlawful use of a computerized communication system Dec. 12.

On Dec. 1, a Sunday, the pair was caught in a family bathroom on school grounds engaging in sexual activity, according to the girl’s discipline records. The girl received two days’ suspension. The mother says her daughter was pressured into this and she is trying to expunge the incident from the record.

A few weeks later, Dec. 16, both students were riding the bus home from a field trip in Madison. On this bus, extra staff had been assigned to keep watch of the two.

But the extra staff wasn’t enough.

The two students were sitting in the front row of the bus, across the aisle from each other, according to a police report. The girl was looking out the window when the boy called her name and said “look at this.”

When she turned her head, the boy was slouched down in the seat with his jacket on his lap. He lifted the jacket and exposed his genitals to the girl.

The girl reported the incident a few days later to a school counselor and the police were called — the second time in a week police were called because of him. The boy denied exposing himself, but the responding officer said, “I believe (the girl) more than him,” the police report states.

The boy was cited again, this time for lewd and lascivious behavior. In Johnson Creek, a municipal citation for lewd and lascivious behavior carries a $376 fine, according to Johnson Creek Police Sgt. Michael Gosh.

More than a month later, on Jan. 21, another incident occurred. Both students were at school on a shared Google Doc — allowing each to view the same document from separate computers.

The school’s internet filters flagged a conversation on the document, according to the girl’s disciplinary record, in which the two students were sharing sexually explicit messages.

The girl lost “her right to have a Chromebook,” according to the record, and spent a day on in-school suspension. But, the girl’s mother said the boy “pressured her into writing sexual content for him.”

Frustrated that these incidents kept happening while the school stood by, the mother went to the circuit court system and requested the restraining order.

But, even after the order was granted, the district couldn’t gain control, the mother said.

After asking the judge his “clarification” questions, the district told the mother that schedules would be changed, but that didn’t happen, she said.

“I was given no formal plans as to what measures the school would take,” the mother said. “Just them telling me they will do their best and empty promises of the school reviewing their schedules and changing their classes.”

“They failed to do this. They haven’t changed classes or done escorts.”

The girl said that after the TRO was filed, the boy brought the documents into class and would show them off in class as he snickered.

The girl also said the two were forced to interact. She said that when exams were being taken, they had to be separated, so a teacher would ask, “OK, so which one of you is going to leave?”

The girl said this practice only caused arguments between the two students over who would go to another room — despite the court order that they not communicate.

“The victim has to continue to face their abuser,” the mother said.

It should never have gotten this far, according to the mother. She pointed to the district’s sexual harassment policies outlined by the school board.

The district policy for harassment by students requires a mediator to sit down with each individual separately and then hold a group meeting to resolve the complaint. The mother says none of this happened.

The district policy for sexual assault mandates law enforcement be contacted immediately, which did happen. But after the boy was cited twice, he continued to be in classrooms with the girl he targeted.

“Any time we have a complaint from a student or a parent or even a situation where a student indicates info to a staff member, we do our best to investigate that situation,” Garvey said. “Anything that we find that would be illegal activity where someone is suspected of some sort of abuse, whether at home or at school or dating or any type of that scenario, we would, of course, report that to police and social services.”

Gosh said he’s had good experiences working with the district and the department has referred the case to Jefferson County Human Services — like Garvey said the district would do if it got to a certain level.

“Johnson Creek works very well with us. We have a very good working relationship with school district counselors and their administration,” Gosh said. “It’s normal with the more serious ones for Human Services to get involved. But, like we have with this one, where it’s multiple smaller offenses, every report now is getting sent to Human Services. We normally wouldn’t do that, but we see it as a problem, so everything is now going to Human Services so they can deal with it at their end.”

Heidi Lloyd, executive director of New Beginnings APFV, an advocacy organization for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, said that in her experience, schools are good at responding to incidents such as this.

“Schools that I’m familiar with will go out of their way to ensure there’s not an exposure; however. it’s not a requirement,” Lloyd said. “In general, what a school will do is work on adjusting the schedules of the students to make sure they don’t have classes together. Unfortunately, in a high school, there’s no guarantee that they won’t see each other. The person who it’s against, the school will say ‘hey, why don’t you walk away so there is no contact?’ That’s generally the way it’s been.”

But the Johnson Creek students continued to have classes together.

The granting of an injunction against a Johnson Creek student comes just weeks after the Daily Union reported that the district didn’t have any reports of harassment or discrimination in its schools over a five-year period.

Garvey said last fall that the district’s staff is able to prevent harassment because of its small student body.

“We’re hoping that we’re not getting to that point of harassment or that point of discrimination and there’s really no reason that we need to get there,” Garvey said last fall. “So there’s zeros. It’s just we just deal with things as they come and hope not to get to that significant complaint.”

A study done by the Association of American University Women found that schools often are unable to stop sexual harassment. The study found nearly 50 percent of girls between grades seven and 12 had experienced some form of sexual harassment, even as most schools said they hadn’t received any reports.

But, Garvey said this is just a bad situation not worth the attention.

“I just think this is an unfortunate situation,” Garvey said. “It’s a non-story, it’s dragging kids through things. You don’t have all the information and I’m not allowed to give you all the information. If you want to put it in the paper, that’s your right to do so.”

The mother said this has been a learning experience for her family. She said that even though her calls have been avoided by district staff and it’s been difficult as her daughter deals with the emotional fallout, she’s glad she spoke up.

“We were that squeaky wheel,” the mother said.

“I want to scream it from the rooftops,” she added.

The girl, who is receiving counseling from a local support group, said she wanted to protect others.

“It’s not only protecting me, but protecting other girls who aren’t strong enough,” the girl said.

The Johnson Creek School District school board held a special closed session Feb. 6 to “discuss social or personal history or disciplinary data of specific persons,” and speak with its lawyer about strategy with “respect to litigation in which it is or is likely to become involved.”

It is possible this meeting was to discuss the district’s response to the injunction.

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