WINCHESTER — More than a dozen people assailed the city School Board for over 30 minutes on Monday night for its treatment of a 14-year-old sexual assault victim.
“I’m [expletive] angry,” said Dan Bostick, stepfather of a Handley High School student who has accused Winchester Public Schools of failing to keep her isolated from the 14-year-old boy she says attacked her last summer in a city park. “It’s your ... responsibility to keep my daughter safe in a hostile environment. Do you understand that, Jason?”
Bostick’s comment was directed at Winchester Public Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum, who signed off on the results of an internal Title IX investigation that determined Bostick’s stepdaughter, Francesca, was not sexually assaulted in July 2017. When the Bostick family appealed the decision, the School Board sided with Van Heukelum.
Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination of any sort — including bullying and intimidation — in schools that receive money from the federal government.
The city school division claims it is not in violation of Title IX because it could not substantiate Francesca’s assault report, even though the boy was charged with misdemeanor sexual battery and felony abduction and pleaded no contest to the charges in December in Winchester Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
According to the court’s ruling, the felony abduction charge will be dismissed and the misdemeanor sexual battery charge will be reduced to simple assault and battery if the boy, whose name has been withheld from all public documents, complies with conditions including a protection order mandating that he have no contact with Francesca.
“Almost a year after I first told the school what happened to me, I’m still standing here before you asking you to believe I’m a victim of sexual violence,” Francesca told the School Board on Monday.
“You are contributing to a culture where victims of sexual violence are stigmatized and silenced,” added Francesca’s mother, Danielle Bostick. “You’re sending a clear message to victims of sexual violence: ‘We won’t believe you. We won’t help you.’”
Both Dan Bostick and Danielle Bostick are employed as teachers by Winchester Public Schools.
Even though school officials ruled that Title IX did not apply, they said measures would be taken to comply with the court’s protection order and keep Francesca and the boy separated.
But Francesca said she saw the boy at least eight times between mid-January and the end of the school year on June 5.
“Because of your decisions, my learning environment is a place of constant fear and re-traumatization because my learning environment also includes the person who sexually assaulted and abducted me,” Francesca told the board.
“From May 15 to June 4, Francesca went to school for nine days,” said 2018 Handley graduate Jeremiah Foltz, a former student representative to the School Board. “Four of those nine days, she saw her assailant. In Francesca’s words, ‘It felt like I was being attacked all over again.’”
“We may not be able to keep students safe outside of school, but we can and must keep them safe when they’re here,” said Handley High School teacher Karlena Sakas. “This physical, sexual and emotional abuse shapes and shatters self-confidence and well-being, and it can lead to anxiety, self-harm and even suicide.”
“These kids are crying out for help,” said Annetta Pringle, who previously appeared before the board in May 2017 to seek help shielding her daughter Alexis from bullying and racist insults at Handley.
Pringle said Monday that the School Board failed to act on her concerns last year, so she and her daughter moved to Williamsburg because “we saw a better way to be in a progressive area.”
“We place our kids under your trust, expecting you’re going to take care of our kids, but you’re not doing it,” Dan Bostick told the board. “We filed a complaint, we filed an appeal. You all looked at that appeal and you rubber-stamped it. That just tells me you don’t give a damn about my kids, you don’t give a damn about safety.”
“I stand before you today to ask you to not only listen to her situation, but to hear and understand the damage it is causing her,” said Francesca’s friend and Handley classmate Katherine Martin. “She is not your enemy; she is your responsibility.”
School Board Chairwoman Allyson Pate told the speakers the board would not respond to any comments Monday night. If the panel decides to address any of the statements publicly, it probably would not do so until August.
Van Heukelum told the speakers the school division takes student safety very seriously.
“In addition to their many responsibilities, our school administrators work tirelessly and relentlessly so that our students learn in a safe and orderly environment,” Van Heukelum said. “This includes a thorough review of any concerns or complaints brought to our attention so that we can make well-informed decisions. While we do have to make difficult decisions, we do not under any circumstances tolerate or permit prohibited harassment against our students and staff.”
“The boy does not have to be harassing her in school for this to be a hostile environment for her,” said Francesca’s grandmother Marcia Smith.
Danielle Bostick filed a second Title IX complaint against the school system April 23. A final determination is pending.
“Equal access to education is a basic civil right guaranteed by both Title IX and the Virginia Human Rights Act, and you’ve denied me access to my education,” Francesca told the board. “Members of the Winchester School Board, Dr. Van Heukelum, you signed up for this job to serve and protect students, not to throw us under the bus to protect yourselves. I’m asking you to do the right thing. It is not too late.”
— Contact Brian Brehm at email@example.com