Gwinnett County DA to review school sex-assault allegation

Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Thursday his office will conduct a review of a high school student's claim she was sexually assaulted at school by a male classmate more than a year ago, saying there was "physical evidence to corroborate her version of events."

The male classmate said the oral sex was consensual in the incident that occurred at Peachtree Ridge High School Feb. 4, 2015. No criminal charges were filed after a school investigation, and both students were suspended from school, angering the girl’s family. The family filed a federal complaint saying the school botched the inquiry.

“In hindsight, I’m sure we could had taken a more aggressive approach” in investigating the case, Porter said in a telephone interview.

This case highlights a debate about who should handle serious crimes on campus, school police officers or law enforcement agencies run by a city or county. Porter is not in favor of schools leading such investigations.

“School systems have too much of a vested interest in not being designated as dangerous schools to operate police forces free of conflicts of interest,” he said.

It also comes at a time when sex assaults on campus have attracted the attention of White House, which has increased the pressure on schools to better handle sexual-assault complaints with new guidelines released Monday.

Porter conceded his longstanding viewpoint about school policing "is in the minority." Atlanta's school district this summer started its own school police force, to the dismay of Mayor Kasim Reed, who believed city police officers should patrol public schools.

Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said in an interview Thursday he “absolutely” supports having school resources officers on campus and investigating allegations such as sexual assault.

“I will assure you our officers are well-trained,” Wilbanks said.

School districts are required to notify prosecutors of serious alleged crimes, such as sexual assault, which Gwinnett did in this instance, Porter said. His office assisted with the school’s investigation in a support role. Porter said they helped write a search warrant that got DNA samples from the accused student and helped with witness statements. Porter said his office waited for information from the school district but the case fell between the cracks.

Wilbanks said school resource officers conferred with officials from Porter’s office several times during the investigation.

The girl, who was 16 at the time, said the boy asked her to follow him to a room on campus shortly after classes ended that day to show her some video equipment and coerced into oral sex. The following day, the girl said she came to school and tearfully told a teacher her story. She told a school resource officer her version of events, but said she was asked what was she wearing when the alleged assault took place and why she didn’t do more to stop it. first reported about the case Tuesday.

Slate reported both students were asked to appear at a joint disciplinary hearing, where their legal representatives could cross-examine each student.

Gwinnett suspended both students for 10 days for engaging in sexual activity on school grounds, according to an attorney representing the girl’s family. The family was outraged that she was disciplined and filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights in August 2015, criticizing how Gwinnett handled the investigation.

Gwinnett school district officials strongly denied the allegations against them in the federal complaint. They’ve said they cannot discuss the allegations in detail because of the ongoing federal investigation. Wilbanks declined to discuss the school district’s discipline of the girl in detail, but said “the reason for the penalty is what the evidence showed.”

The girl, who said she was verbally taunted by classmates after she returned from her suspension, is now in another Georgia school district. Adele Kimmel, an attorney representing the girl, said Thursday she is pleased Porter is reviewing the allegations. She said the school resource officer “did a terrible job” investigating her client’s allegations and hopes Gwinnett will give its officers better training.

“The school blamed the victim and the DA dropped the ball. Both systems failed her,” Kimmel said. “My hope is (the review) will help this victim and other victims.”