(Editor's note: The headline for this article has been changed to correct a typographical error.)
Former Hebron ninth grade center Principal Mark Dalton testified for hours Wednesday in the case of a 14-year-old girl who says she was sexually assaulted by two boys at a high school party in October of 2012.
The girl's parents filed the federal suit going on at the Chase Bank Building with Judge Ron Clark presiding while she was still a minor, but she has since taken over the case on her own.
The suit alleges that the school violated Title IX by retaliating against the girl for filing the sexual assault and bullying complaints.
Title IX law prohibits institutions that receive federal funding from discriminating against anyone based on gender.
The Herald Democrat is not naming the girl involved because alleged victims of sexual assault are generally not named in coverage. The two young men are not being identified because they were juveniles when the alleged incident occurred and they were never charged with any crime related to the incident.
No experience with sexual assault investigations
The girl's family has contended throughout the trial that the district drug its feet in its investigation as a way of retaliating against the girl for filing the complaints against the two football players and against other students for bullying her.
On the stand Wednesday, former Hebron Principal Mark Dalton said that was not the case. He said the school simply differed to the police who had much more experience investigating those types of allegations. Dalton said he had never been involved in a sexual assault investigation and that to his knowledge none had ever been raised at the school before the girl at the heart of the case. Chris Payne, one of the attorneys representing the girl, asked Dalton if it is true that under Title IX, the district had to conduct a prompt and thorough investigation into both the sexual assault claim and the bullying complaint.
Dalton said it is true that they had to investigate, but prompt was relative. He said they were asked by the Carrollton Police to hold off until the police were finished with their investigation into the sexual assault complaint. He said he didn't ask anyone above him at the district how to conduct the investigation. Payne asked if the district didn't have a duty to complete the investigation quickly to avoid having the school become a hostile environment for the victim in the case. Dalton said that wasn't an issue in this case because the girl who made the allegation wasn't at school. He said he didn't see any reason to remove the boys from the school because she wasn't there and it was his understanding that she wasn't planning on being there. When pressed further about why the district didn't remove the boys who had been accused of the sex crime, Dalton said because all they had was the accusation. He said the district has to have something more than just an accusation to take action. Otherwise, he said, any boy would be subject to being removed from campus because a girl makes a complaint. Dalton said they didn't start an investigation into the bullying claim because he thought the sexual assault investigation to be much more important.
Dalton said nothing that was done was done to hurt the girl who filed the complaint. He said he fully expected that the police would come back to the school and say that one or both of the boys had assaulted the girl and that they would then be expelled. Payne asked him if he didn't have the ability to remove the boys without the police findings. Again Dalton said that wasn't true. He said they either needed the police to file charges against the boys or the district had to find, in its own investigation, a preponderance of evidence that proved the boys had committed a crime. He said the girl was welcomed back at the school but he didn't know how the district would have accommodated her wish to not see the boys who had attacked her. He said they could make sure that they weren't in any of the same classes, but there was nothing they could do about the halls.
Payne insisted that under Title IX, the district had a duty to make sure the school was not a hostile environment for her.
And Dalton answered, “But it hadn't been determined that she had been sexually assaulted, yet.” He said they didn't move forward with figuring out how to do that because the girl and her parents indicated she wasn't coming back.
The former principal conceded that maybe the district had delayed their investigation a little too long while waiting on the police to complete their case.
He finally did learn that the police were not going to charge the boys with any crime and the school district began its investigation in January. They completed it in February which was much longer than the ten days that the Title IX and the district's own policies say it should be completed in, Payne pointed out.
Dalton said it was his understanding that the girl's family didn't find out about the school's decision until April. He said the school's attorney was in charge of telling them and he, Dalton, didn't know of any reason for the delay.
The girl's attorneys hinted that the reason might have something to do with allowing the boys at the heart of the allegations to complete their athletic seasons. Dalton said that wasn't the case.
Payne pointed out that by the time the school began its investigation the students had all had plenty of time to talk to one another and get their stories lined up. At the very least, he said, their memories could have faded.
The two then went over just exactly what the district did to investigate. Dalton said a school official named Amanda Werneke was put in charge of the investigation. He said that he was there when some of the students were questioned and he wasn't there for some. Though, he said, Werneke usually had another district employee with her when she talked to students. He said the students were asked to write down their recollections of what happened the night of the party, in their own words.
Payne asked if the district sought any help from any outside sources on how to question the students or how to run the investigation since they had never done one before, and Dalton said he didn't know there was anyone to ask about that. He said Werneke had conducted plenty of investigations into all kinds of alleged student violations. He had faith in her ability to conduct this one as well. Payne then asked if the district had seen any of the text messages in which the students talked openly about what happened at the party. Dalton said the school didn't get very far with those because they don't have the right to compel the students to turn over their phone.
Payne asked if the district could compare the statements from each of the students against statements from other students. Dalton said sure, but that doesn't necessarily get them anywhere with the students.
While Dalton testified that the people questioning the boys who were accused of a crime didn't prepare a list of questions for each boy, the group of people who questioned the girl at the heart of the lawsuit did. And those questions, Dalton said under questioning from Payne about the issue, were filtered through an attorney. Payne asked why the victim in the case wasn't allowed to simply write out her version of what happened like everyone else. Dalton said she hadn't returned to school to be able to write down the answers.
Dalton testified that the district didn't find enough evidence to declare that the girl had been sexually assaulted. He said that didn't mean the district was saying she wasn't. He explained that the district's investigation used a preponderance of evidence to reach its findings and the statements they got from the students who were questioned where too varied to be able to say that the evidence of a sexual assault outweighed the evidence that the sexual encounter was consensual.
He said the district started with the assumption that sexual contact took place. The girl's parents said it happened, he said, and they were believed. He said the boys said the girl agreed to the sex acts. One even said she was the aggressor.
He said she pulled his pants down and started performing oral sex on him. So they asked others how drunk the girl was because if she was too drunk to know what she was doing, she couldn't legally give consent. Dalton said they ran into trouble there because the students responses to those questions varied widely. Some students said she was falling down drunk while others said she wasn't drunk at all or that she was pretending to be more intoxicated than she actually was. With no way to prove her state of intoxication, he said, the district couldn't find that the sexual assault had occurred.
Guidance counselor returns to stand
Dalton wasn't the only former Hebron employee to take the stand Wednesday. Jurors also continued hearing from former guidance counselor Debra Whitehead. When she returned to the stand first thing Wednesday, Tom Brandt, one of the district's attorneys, asked her if she felt like she had been crucified the day before. Whitehead said she would never compare herself to Christ, but she did feel a bit like that. By the time she left the stand, she likely felt even worse.
The day before she had told the jury she never intended to hurt the girl at the heart of the case because she, Whitehead, understood what it was like to violated. On Wednesday, she explained that she knows what it is like to be in a situation where you lose control and where someone around you isn't accepting it when you say “no.”
Brandt asked her to elaborate and Whitehead began to shake. She took a number of deep breaths and seemed to be gathering herself for her answer. The whole courtroom waited in silence for what seemed like a long time and then she started to speak in very measured tone. She said she had been with someone who was not accepting “no” for an answer and, “I ran out of the house with a busted lip and felt humiliated.”
She then sobbed as members of the district's defense team whipped tears from their eyes.
Charla Aldous, a Sherman native who is also representing the girl at the heart of the case, asked the woman if she needed a minute before they talked, Whitehead said through tears that she just wanted to get it over with. Clark, however, called for a break.
Under quiet questioning from Aldous, Whitehead said she didn't start the required investigation into the bullying the girl's mother had reported because she thought the sexual assault allegations trumped them. Aldous asked her if she saw the bullying as sexual harassment and Whitehead said she did. Aldous said that determination should have also triggered an investigation and Whitehead repeated that she thought the investigation into the sexual assault was more important at the time.
A daughter's unraveling spurs her mother to act
The last witness for the day was the girl's mother. The woman said she gave her daughter permission to spend the night with a friend on the night that she ended up getting drunk at a house party. The mother said she knew something was wrong as soon as she saw her daughter the next day. The daughter came home early and walked straight to her room rather than heading her mother's calls to stop and talk. The mother said she went up to her daughter's room to find her in bed crying. The mother said the two of them had an agreement that if the daughter was allowed to spend the night with a friend she wouldn't complain about having to get up early and go to a cheer camp the next day. So, she said, when her daughter started saying she didn't feel like going to the camp, they didn't immediately agree on what to do.
“She said, please don't make her go,” the mother said. The girl said she didn't feel good but wouldn't say what was wrong. The mother checked and her daughter didn't have a fever. But she just kept crying.
“I didn't know what had happened,” the mother sobbed and said she thinks about that day and the way she made her daughter go to the cheer camp even though all she had been through the night before.
The mother said her daughter was so different in one day's time.
“The sparkle in her eyes was gone,” she said. She said it was as if her daughter were wearing a mask. She said when the girl came home from cheer camp she went to bed where she alternated between crying and sleeping. The mother said she told her husband that night that something had happened to their daughter but she couldn't get any information about what it was. The girl went to school the next week but was still not her usual self.
“It was like she was overloaded, mentally overloaded,” her mother said.
Then came a day, she said, when her child ran to the car as if someone were chasing her. The mother said her daughter got in the car and started screaming, beating her fists on the window and stomping her feet on the dashboard. Alarmed, the mother asked what had happened at school.
Her daughter said that people were being mean to her. Everyone, she said, was being mean to her. She said people were calling her names like “whore” and “slut” and saying awful things about her body. She said people she didn't even know were walking by her and laughing or pointing at her.
The mother said she took her daughter home and immediately called the school. She talked to Whitehead and told her some of the things her daughter had reported. The mother said the things were so awful she could barely bring herself to repeat them to the other woman. She said Whitehead said she wanted to get the girl to confront the people who were saying bad things about her. The mother said her daughter stayed home the next day. But the next day, she seemed to be doing better so the mother sent the counselor a note asking her not to make the girl face her tormentors.
Earlier in her testimony, Whitehead said that the girl's mother misunderstood her plans for meeting with the girl. Whitehead said she just wanted to get the girl to tell her directly what was happening and who was tormenting her. Whitehead said she had no plans to get the girl in the room with the people who were upsetting her.
The mother is expected to return to the stand Thursday morning. The case is expected to go through early next week.