Sexual assault was just the beginning of the nightmare for local teenager
by Bill Boyle
San Juan Record Editor
(Editor’s note: This story is about a young woman – a victim of sexual assault – who suffered from “slut-shaming” while she waited for the juvenile justice system to adjudicate her case.
The San Juan Record has a policy of never naming names in juvenile cases. But the facts of this case speak to a growing problem of sexual assault in San Juan County and of the public shaming of victims, so we choose to tell this story while maintaining the anonymity of those involved.)
It was just a few weeks after the sexual assault occurred and it seemed to the 15-year-old victim that everyone knew about it.
And most of them had a definite opinion.
She recounts, “One day, [a fellow student whose name is withheld] walked up to me and said, ‘If you don’t drop charges, I will rape you too.’”
For the young San Juan County resident, it was the continuation of a nightmare experience that seemed to be getting worse. And it would be nearly a year before the justice system completed the process and determined that she was, in fact, an actual victim of an actual crime.
However, at this point in time she was an alleged victim of an alleged crime, and even though the incident involved juveniles and was investigated by a system that is designed to ensure confidentiality, so many people seemed to be aware of at least some details.
• • • • •
While recounting the evening that triggered the incident, the young victim outlines a brief series of events that led her to an unfamiliar place in a locked car with a casual acquaintance. The crime was forceable sexual assault.
She went home afterward and spent the next two days at home, throwing up and in bed. Days later, after she had returned to school, she paid a visit to a trusted teacher.
On the day before the assault, the teacher had given a forceful lecture to the class about sexual harassment after he had heard about crude statements that some male students had made about females.
The lecture had resonated with the victim and she told the teacher about the assault. A female teacher came in and helped notify law enforcement and the victim’s parents.
Her statement initiated the response of law enforcement and, eventually, the prosecutor’s office.
Over several weeks the victim was interviewed a number of times and was asked to recount the specific details of the attack to a number of male law enforcement officers. It was more than a month before she was interviewed by a trained female officer.
• • • • •
Just like the adult system, law enforcement investigates the allegations of crime and the county attorney’s office determines whether or not to prosecute the suspects.
They investigate the allegation, interview the parties involved, review the evidence, and determine whether or not to proceed.
In this case, the system found merit in the complaint and determined to move ahead with the charges. Criminal charges are between the State of Utah and the accused, not between the alleged victim and the accused.
• • • • •
Even after experiencing the trauma of the actual crime, what came next was more painful.
The young victim of forceable sexual assault states, “The victimization was worse. It was much worse.”
She and her family had moved to San Juan County less than a year before the assault occurred and she had struggled to find friends. The new rural community was so much different than the urban school she had been attending.
For one reason or another, the few friendships that the victim had developed during her few months in San Juan County began to deteriorate after the assault. One friend told her that his mother had heard stories about her and didn’t want the friendship to continue. Other friends simply stopped spending time with the victim.
Awareness of the allegations and opinions about the situation seemed to grow. The victim’s brother was approached by a friend at school who was aware of many details of the case. The eight-year-old boy confidently predicted that the trial would result in a not-guilty verdict.
• • • • •
The same confidentiality that is a fundamental feature of the juvenile justice system can become a significant challenge, particularly if that confidentiality is compromised by one party or another.
Time and time again in juvenile cases, limited details of incidents leak into the community at large. This can be damaging to the victims, to the accused, and to the public reputation of the justice process itself.
Public awareness of the incident may develop, but there are no mechanisms for the public to get the truth. In the end, the public will very likely never hear the full story.
The judge is the one person tasked with determining the case, with hearing the full story and making the determination and the sentence. And the judge will never compromise the confidentiality of the system.
• • • • •
The growing group of those who thought the teenage girl had not been assaulted were increasingly vocal. When she finally complained about a particularly explicit and obscene set of comments by one boy, she was encouraged by an official to take it easy on the boy because “he was from a rough background.”
Increasingly isolated and feeling bullied and harassed, the victim eventually felt it necessary to leave the school.
She studied online for a brief period of time and then transferred to a completely new school in an adjacent community. For the remainder of her high school years, she commuted from her home to the new school.
But the harassment didn’t stop. The bullying continued. A series of random anonymous text messages were sent to students and others at her new school from a “burner” cellular telephone. The messages, filled with derogatory and false messages about the victim, could not be traced by the law enforcement officials who investigated the incident.
It is clear that the harassment was not limited to fellow teenagers. Adults in the community participated in the slut-shaming, which seemed to give license to other teenagers to be even more cruel.
• • • • •
Slut-shaming is rampant in modern culture, particularly in conservative communities such as San Juan County. And it can be even worse in the age of social media.
The crude term implies that girls are somehow to blame or responsible for being sexually bullied or assaulted.
According to VeryWell Family, slut-shaming is a form of bullying where girls are targeted in person or on social media and bullied through degradation or humiliation for their sexuality. What this means is that girls are often ridiculed for the way they look, the way they dress, and their presumed level of sexual activity.
According to another study, slut-shaming is one of the most common forms of sexual harassment that students deal with in middle and high school. One-third of all middle and high school students experience having someone make unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures about them.
• • • • •
A trial was held more than eight months after the incident. Once again, the victim and the accused repeated their stories, this time under oath and with cross examination.
After the evidence was presented and the arguments had been made, Seventh District Judge Mary Manley ruled that the accused was guilty of forceable sexual assault.
• • • • •
Several weeks later, on the day of the sentencing, the court room was crowded. The sentencing phase is more public – even in the juvenile system – and this sentencing was very public.
Five people were on one side of the room, including the victim, her parents, and the prosecution team.
The other side of the room was crowded with a large group of supporters of the boy. The group – estimated at approximately 50 people – included friends and neighbors, teammates and coaches, adults, leaders, and fellow students.
The group spilled over into the area behind the victim and prosecution.
The victim’s father describes the room as “completely full” and adds, “It felt like the whole ward was there.”
The victim’s mother remembers, “I felt like, oh my gosh, what did we do? What are they doing to us?”
• • • • •
The prosecution and defense gave recommendations for the sentencing, and the victim, the accused, and their parents had the opportunity to speak.
During the sentencing, Judge Manley took the opportunity to address the system and the process.
Judge Manley explained, “I understand that there are many positions and perhaps interpretations of what took place or didn’t take place on the evening alleged. But we do have a process for making determinations and that is through the justice system and it is standards of proof that are required beyond a reasonable doubt.
“…[The process includes] vigorous representation by council, cross examination of witnesses, looking at the evidence both direct and circumstantial, and evaluating the case.
“…The truth is the truth and there are two parties who have a window to that. But of course, it isn’t the standard that we have to know precisely and specifically and without any doubt what took place. The standard is beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Of the case, Manley stated, “This Court had a full day, with competent council, with testimony from both the victim and the accused... I do not call her an alleged victim because I have made a determination and a finding.”
Judge Manley stated that the sentencing is to encourage “accountability, consequence, and rehabilitation.”
The sentence was a few days in detention, community service hours, court-ordered counseling for the boy, and 18 months of counseling for the victim.
“It was kinda more on the lenient side,” said the victim of the sentencing. “But we weren’t asking for anything else. As I left the room, I feel as if justice had been served. …Just because so many people were there, I felt I had made my point.”
Her father adds, “There were so many supporters (of the boy). But Judge Manley laid it out very clearly. At the very least, they had not heard the full story.”
One youth who attended the sentencing said he was a friend of the accused and attended to support him.
“I didn’t go in on neutral ground,” he explains. “I went in with an attitude that he was innocent.”
After the sentencing, he said he walked out of the court with a different perspective.
“I felt absolutely manipulated [by the public perception],” he explains.
• • • • •
Years later, San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws is still troubled by the case.
He said, “It is infuriating to see members of the community – especially adults – belittle or attack a victim of sexual assault.
“In our small, tight-knit communities, it is incredibly difficult for victims, particularly young victims, to come forward and tell their stories.
“I am always so impressed with the strength, courage, and grit of these victims and I think they should be commended for their courage to speak out about the most invasive and traumatic event that will ever occur in their life.
“Consider how hurtful it is for the victim to hear the community discuss and pass judgment when they weren’t there and don’t know what they are talking about.
“I would encourage community members to avoid passing absolute judgment, and certainly avoid acting on those judgments based entirely off what they hear ‘through the rumor mill.’ Let the legal system play out and work.
“However, once an accused becomes a convicted perpetrator, I think it is absolutely the community’s responsibility to step up and rally around the victims.”
• • • • •
The victim’s father states simply, “The system failed us in several ways.”
He outlines several concerns, including a lack of support and problems with her transfer to the new school that were never resolved.
The father said that people in position of trust (including school, counseling, law enforcement, and religious leaders) either “swept it under the rug” or sided with the perpetrator.
He adds that counter accusations seemed to have more weight than the real actions.
The young victim had started high school in a prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) program at an urban high school.
But after moving to San Juan County, experiencing a traumatic sexual assault, suffering through the brutal community response, and transferring to a new school, her academic progress seemed to come to a screeching halt.
“Frankly, I am proud to have simply graduated from high school,” she admits.
• • • • •
“I encourage victims to come forward sooner rather than later,” said Kendall Laws. “There are a variety of services available to victims of crime, especially sexual assaults.
“And in San Juan County there is a team of professionals ready to embrace and support you and your family, from highly-trained law enforcement investigators and interviewers to sensitive prosecutors who will ensure that your voice is heard throughout the process and victim advocates who stand waiting to link you with counseling and other services.
“These crimes are a heavy burden to carry but you don’t have to carry them alone.”
Laws approached the San Juan School Board in August to address what he called a growing “rape culture” among youth in the county. He outlined the growth in sexual abuse claims.
• • • • •
In order to deal with the growing incidence of juvenile crime, coordination between the juvenile system and the school system is of critical importance. However, that coordination was disrupted by legislation passed by the State of Utah in 2017.
While the juvenile justice reform was a successful attempt to reduce the number of youth in custody, local officials wonder if it created more problems than it solved.
“We have fewer kids in custody but certainly not a decrease in the amount of crime committed by the youth,” said Laws.
Laws adds that the bill “effectively declawed the juvenile court system of the ability to curb the behavior of juveniles. It will teach the youth of Utah that there are no consequences for their deviant behavior.”
“This is particularly damaging to the juveniles who can get away with actions until they are 18,” said Laws. “Then they find themselves facing life in prison.”
A key element of the 2017 reform effort is that it limits sentences and detention, in part by effectively eliminating coordination between law enforcement and the schools.
The school system is in a very difficult situation because the events are not happening in a direct school setting, but the impacts and repercussions often play out in the schools.
The reform directs that actions in the schools that once resulted in a complaint to the justice system are now to be handled within the school system.
Simply put, the schools and justice system are not coordinating their efforts in ways that were common before the 2017 juvenile justice reform.
However, since visiting with the school board in June, Kendall Laws reports that the two entities have been meeting to share notes and coordinate efforts.
Ron Nielson, Superintendent of the San Juan School District, emphasized “the district’s support to help avoid similar situations in the future.”
• • • • •
At the sentencing, the judge added, “There is still a life after the trial.”
Now, several years later, the healing process is still taking place. Recently, the victim’s mother said things are much better as she tearfully stated, “I lost my little girl for a couple of years.”
The victim states that she is looking forward to a bright future and said, “It is really awesome to be able to forget things.”
She adds, however, “I didn’t think I would live this long because it was so hard.”
Thoughts on sexual assault story
by Bill Boyle, DUST IN THE WIND
The juvenile justice system is built on several fundamental principles, and the key among them is confidentiality. The system generally runs independent of general public awareness and oversight.
This is designed to protect both the victims and the perpetrators and to give youth the ability to learn from their mistakes, to heal away from public awareness, and to move ahead with their lives.
Charges and their resolution in the juvenile system are not reported in the San Juan Record, even though the newspaper has reported every felony charge in the adult justice system for the past 20 years.
This newspaper supports the confidentiality that is a cornerstone of the juvenile system. We will continue to protect the names and confidentiality of the accused and the victims.
Frankly, reporting on matters in the juvenile justice system is very difficult. As in every criminal case, the defendants and the alleged victims are likely to have a skewed view of the issue. And they can choose to speak freely and ignore the confidentiality that is a hallmark of the system.
Those who are tasked by their profession to investigate, prosecute, defend, and adjudicate the cases are bound to confidentiality.
The incident discussed in our article beginning on page A1 is unrelated to any current case in the juvenile or adult system. The crimes in this incident are resolved and justice has been served.
We are not publishing the names of anyone involved, and frankly, we superficially cover the actual crime itself. It is resolved and adjudicated and we hope the parties have moved on.
We choose to publish the story because it is highly representative of the issues faced by many victims in the justice system.
We also choose to publish the story because the judge – the one person in the entire system who is tasked with knowing and understanding the full story – spoke out during the sentencing phase of the case. The judge’s thoughts – eloquently and forcefully offered in a public setting – are very instructive.