A 5-year-old boy was reportedly sexually assaulted by a 6-year-old male classmate at a Los Angeles-area school recently. On another campus, a 6-year-old girl was allegedly sexually abused by a 10-year-old classmate after he grabbed her hair and pulled her into a school bathroom.
At a conference Wednesday on the Westside, these and other cases were described as part of a troubling trend of sexually aggressive behavior among students. Sponsored by the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and the Los Angeles Unified School District, the event drew 200 educators, law enforcement officers and other officials, who discussed ways to better recognize abuse and harassment and establish more effective responses.
Gail Abarbanel, founder and director of the Rape Treatment Center, said that in the last year her group has seen an increase in cases of students sexually assaulting students and in sexual misconduct by teachers in which students are the victims on L.A. Unified campuses and in other school districts.
"We all need to be vigilant, and we need to collaborate to protect the students involved in these incidents: the victims and the victimizers, the other students in the school, and the school or school district," she said.
In another recent incident, a 15-year-old severely developmentally disabled girl suffering from a seizure disorder was led into a bathroom by a boy who allegedly molested her and attempted to rape her. Months later, another boy reportedly sexually assaulted her in a bathroom even though she was supposed to have one-on-one supervision at the school.
L.A. Unified Supt. David L. Brewer, who oversees the nation's second-largest school district, acknowledged that more coordination is needed and that a culture in which an educator may be reluctant to voice suspicions about a colleague must change.
"In some cases, people have been hesitant to report abuses, and we can't have that," Brewer said. "We have to ensure that we have the tools and knowledge to change enough of our culture so that we prevent these things from happening."
Brewer underscored the depth of the problem by relating an incident that came to his attention last week: A girl left school to attend a "ditch" party, was allegedly raped and was then wheeled back to school in a grocery cart.
On Tuesday, a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury awarded nearly $1.6 million to three students who were molested by a former school aide at L.A. Unified's Miramonte Early Learning Center in South Los Angeles. The abuse took place when the victims were 5 to 7 years old.
And an L.A. Unified administrator, Steve Thomas Rooney, faces four molestation-related charges stemming from cases involving former students.
District officials and others vowed to work more closely to stem abuses. The Los Angeles Police Department is organizing all cases involving student-on-student abuse into its specialized juvenile division and expects to handle 50 to 60 such cases each year, said Charlie Beck, chief of detectives. His agency will begin having regular meetings with educators to discuss cases.
In the wake of several high-profile cases, the Los Angeles Board of Education recently ordered better training of staff, better coordination and accountability reforms involving sexual harassment and misconduct.
Many students say they feel helpless in the face of abuse, whether committed by other students or staff, said Harriet Kerr, director of prevention education for the Rape Treatment Center.
Studies show that four out of five students report being victims of sexual harassment from their peers. On many campuses, students say they face a gantlet of coarse and sexually suggestive language, Kerr said.
If there is no adult intervention, such behavior and words begin to feel normal, she said.
"There is a sense that students feel stuck in these situations with no adult to help them," she said.