The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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October 5, 2011

Lawsuit filed on behalf of alleged rape victim

A number of school officials at the former Mount Hope High School are facing a civil suit claiming that their negligent supervision and failure to provide a safe school environment directly resulted in the rape and assault of a female student by several male students in the fall of 2010.

Lawyers representing the young woman and her family filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court late last week against school personnel, Mount Hope High School, the Fayette County Board of Education and the West Virginia Department of Education. Principal Mike Hutchins, Vice Principal Leah Hutchins, as well as coaches Bo Morrison and Linda Nevi, are named as individual defendants.

Previously, the Fayette County Prosecutor’s Office decided not to file criminal charges against the alleged rapists based on what they say was a lack of evidence.

The lawsuit states that after learning of the alleged rape, school officials took no action to address the incident, protect the student or prevent any similar future incidents from occurring. The young woman says because of this she faced a hostile school environment and was forced to transfer to another school district.

The lawsuit alleges that on the afternoon of Nov. 12, 2010, the alleged victim, a 13-year-old cheerleader with the initials “B.E.,” stayed after school to pick up her team’s uniforms from the coach and subsequently missed her bus. Not having a cell phone, she asked workers in the school’s office for use of a phone to call her parents for a ride.

She was allegedly denied use of the phone, according to the suit, and returned to the school gym where she borrowed the cell phone of another student. She then called her parents and told them she would be getting a ride with the student when he was finished with basketball practice.

The lawsuit states that she tried to wait in the office, but it was locked. It alleges that the basketball coach told her she could not wait in the gym.

She then went outside to wait, the lawsuit states, where she was confronted by some male student athletes and forced by them into “a room commonly used by students at Mount Hope High School to engage in sexual acts.” It states that she was then raped and physically and sexually assaulted by the boys, in the presence of another female student.

The lawsuit states that the boys had previously “exhibited and engaged in predatory and sexual behavior towards women in general and female students in particular,” and that school officials were aware of the misconduct and did nothing.

But Fayette County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Matthew England says he was “taken aback” by what he has learned so far of the lawsuit’s presentation of the facts.

Namely, he says that when he interviewed the young woman in January 2011, she recanted her allegations of being abducted and vaginally raped, claiming only that she was pressured into oral sex.

England also says that some of the details currently emerging — the young woman’s lack of a cell phone or the reasons for her staying after school — do not agree with what was told to him and law enforcement previously. 

England says his office waited two months after the incident to interview the alleged victim because they were waiting on the results of forensic lab tests, which he says provided no DNA evidence of a rape. A medical exam, he says, did show signs of trauma.

“I waited until I had all the evidence in. Then when I reviewed the whole file, there were inconsistencies,” he says.

He says these include a lack of corroboration between the stories of the alleged victim and the other female student who was present, as well as video surveillance footage that showed the girl apparently willfully walking into the room where she claims she was raped. England says she had reported being abducted by the males and forced into the room.

England says it was at a meeting to discuss the case and the specific inconsistencies that the young woman recanted the intercourse and dismissed the vaginal trauma as being due to an unrelated incident.

The young woman’s lawyers told The Charleston Gazette that she never recanted her original allegations and that evidence of the sexual assault does exist.

England says he did not file charges against the young woman for filing a false police report because he thought there could have been “outside pressures” that caused her to recant her previous statement. He says he waited a few days to close the case, giving the girl time to return to her original statement if she chose.

“It has been really difficult to determine what exactly happened,” says England. “There were just so many inconsistencies and then with the victim recanting the significant portion of what she initially told law enforcement, it just left us with insufficient evidence to go forward.”

He emphasized that his office is “very disappointed” that they couldn’t bring the case forward and that instances such as this are rare.

“We are in the business of taking cases to court and we aggressively seek justice,” he says.

The filing cites Title IX of U.S. code, which protects people from sexual discrimination in educational programs. The plaintiffs are seeking damages and the implementation of “policies and procedures to protect students like the plaintiff from student-on-student rape and sexual assault or harassment.”

Mount Hope High School was forced to close this year due to consistent underperformance; its students now attend Oak Hill High School.

A spokesperson from the West Virginia Department of Education had no comment at this time. The plaintiff’s lawyers did not return calls for comment.

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