Schools face vexing test: Which kids will sexually attack?
Schools face vexing test: Which kids will sexually attack?
By JUSTIN PRITCHARD and REESE DUNKLIN
May. 16, 2017
The children who sexually assault other children may be the popular jocks, the loners or anyone in between. There is no typical attacker, no way for schools to predict who might inflict that kind of torment on a classmate.
Thousands of school-age offenders are treated annually for sexual aggression in the United States, yet experts see no standard profile of personality, background or motivation.
They say that while anti-social behavior can suggest a greater risk of offending, the cool kid may attack and the rebel may reform. The reasons are rarely as straightforward as physical gratification and range from a sense of entitlement to desperation to fit in.
Though many sexual assaults aren't reported to authorities, research shows that about 95 percent of juvenile offenders who enter the justice system won't be arrested for another sex crime. Experts say the ordeal of facing police and parents — along with public condemnation for such taboo acts — scares many straight.
An ongoing Associated Press investigation has documented how K-12 schools in the United States can fail to protect students in their care from sexual assault, sometimes minimizing or even covering up incidents. Schools also struggle to help sexually aggressive students, both before and after they do lasting harm.
The juvenile justice system stresses second chances, and even unrepentant offenders don't forfeit their right to an education. Back in class, privacy laws can mean teachers and peers do not know their pasts.
The toughest patients need support from all sides, not just treatment professionals, according to one of the nation's pre-eminent juvenile sexual offender experts.
"The safest sex offender is somebody who is stable, occupied, accountable to others and has a plan for the future," said therapist David Prescott, who has treated or assessed hundreds of sexually aggressive kids and now works in Maine for an alliance of nonprofit organizations.
With support and maturation, experts say, young abusers typically recover.
"It's not a lifelong trajectory," said Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. "Children tend to be much more influenced by effective kinds of interventions than adults."
But, as three cases identified by the AP show, they have to want to make it work.
Marques Mondy's basketball talent was obvious. His troubled past was not.
After the Division I prospect assaulted a classmate in a darkened band room at their suburban Michigan high school, a judge ordered him into adolescent sex offender treatment — for the second time.
Under oath in court, the 17-year-old admitted touching the girl on the upper inside of her thigh without her consent. The girl had alleged much worse, and a nurse who examined her told a sheriff's detective an internal tear was "consistent with an injury caused from a penetration."
In mandatory counseling, however, Mondy insisted he did nothing wrong. His therapist told the judge he saw no value in more sessions: Without an acknowledgement of harm, treatment would not succeed.
Mondy's story is not simply a case study of how an offender who drifts in and out of already-strained punishment and treatment systems can end up back at school, unbowed and unchanged. It also shows how family dynamics and privacy rules can further complicate accountability and, ultimately, rehabilitation.
Approached by the AP in person, Mondy, now 23, said there was more to the high school assault story and that he would call to discuss it. He never did.
To piece together his background, the AP unearthed disciplinary records from eight law enforcement agencies and four colleges where he tried to extend his basketball career, and also reviewed material from a civil lawsuit and federal investigation targeting how the school district handled the assault.
In 2003, as a fourth-grader just shy of his ninth birthday, Mondy joined three other boys in an attack on two 11-year-old girls, according to records AP obtained from police in his hometown of Grand Rapids. Behind a house, the boys took turns humping the girls while clothed, later forcing them into an empty home to continue the sexual assault.
When police sought to interview Mondy and his older brother, whom witnesses said helped lead the attack, their mother came without them. Nicole Scott, who is black, suggested the white detective had scared the other two boys into confessing.
Mondy ended up accepting a deal that knocked two criminal sexual conduct felonies down to misdemeanor aggravated assault. Probation included his first stint in Kent County's Adolescent Sex Offender Treatment Program.
Seven years later, Mondy was roaming the halls of Forest Hills Central High School with a sophomore he'd just met. Now 6' 5", he was poised for a breakout junior year of basketball, with pedigree programs including Michigan and Stanford showing interest.
As a cheerleader and multisport athlete herself, the girl knew of Mondy. Charismatic and popular, he was one of the few black students on campus.
He also was well-known to school administrators, who had suspended him for incidents including intimidation and fighting.
Mondy and the girl, Quinn Eck, stopped in front of an empty band room. They went inside and he attacked her, removing her underpants and trying to force her to have sex, she told investigators. She said she struggled free after a call to her cellphone distracted him.
Mondy's story was far different: They talked, it got awkward, he left. "She was telling (me) that she liked (me) but she don't wanna get played," he said in a handwritten statement .
Two weeks later, a second student said Mondy assaulted her in the school parking lot.
Prosecutors eventually charged Mondy with two counts of criminal sexual conduct — one in connection with each alleged assault.
Therapists say adults can play a huge role in rehabilitation, whether by pushing young offenders to confront reality or shielding them from responsibility.
Mondy's coach lobbied for the suspended star's return. "I have invested hundreds of hours in Marques, as have his other coaches and teachers and support teachers," Kenneth George wrote the district superintendent. "And, it is working."
As when he was in fourth grade, Mondy's mom was fiercely protective.
"I hope race isn't a factor when determining who is telling the truth and who is lying," she wrote a district official on Christmas Day 2010. Her son's accusers were white.
The second girl decided not to press charges after other students started harassing Eck, reducing the case to a he said-she said standoff. For a second time, Mondy pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault, rather than a sexual conduct felony. Again, he received probation and a trip to adolescent sex offender treatment.
Within several months Mondy moved, and the criminal case was closed.
An investigation by the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights concluded the school failed to protect Eck from retaliation after the assault. Her family filed a federal lawsuit asserting that officials bungled the case and she won a $600,000 settlement.
The AP does not identify victims of sexual assault without their consent, but Eck said she was ready to speak publicly. After many dark moments, she wants to advocate for victims.
"I am the person I am today because of what happened," she said. "I'm crying now, but I know I'm strong."
Mondy, meanwhile, bounced around smaller colleges, often leaving after run-ins with campus security. By April 2014, he was 20 years old and back in Grand Rapids, where police in a nearby suburb arrested him on suspicion of shoplifting an $8.99 bottle of wine.
Weeks later, Mondy was accused of a fourth sexual assault. A former neighbor told police that he pushed her onto a bed and yanked off her underwear but left after she resisted. He never faced charges — the woman told police she wanted to move on.
Authorities did not connect the dots: An officer who checked Mondy's record found no prior charges. A Grand Rapids police spokesman explained that criminal history checks may not reveal juvenile misdemeanors, which the fourth-grade assault became.
The prosecutor who handled Mondy's juvenile cases said she wasn't surprised to learn of the 2014 assault allegation.
"He didn't do the treatment he needed to do," Vicki Seidl said. "If you can't admit you've done something wrong, you're never going to change behavior."
PREDICTIONS AND WARNINGS
The leading research suggests the overwhelming majority of the nation's roughly 50 million K-12 students will never sexually attack a peer. What have therapists, researchers and other experts concluded about those who do?
Because children are constantly developing, experts say age is an important factor when it comes to motivation. Feelings of control or entitlement might spur a high school student. A middle schooler could act on impulse and opportunity. Elementary students might not know they are violating boundaries.
Academic studies suggest that what might seem like two obvious risk factors — exposure to pornography and being the victim of sexual abuse — are far from certain triggers.
Broader life instability likely is a factor. A 2013 report that studied 517 children who committed sexual offenses found every one had suffered some form of neglect or abuse, said Nicole Pittman, who wrote the report for Human Rights Watch.
Experts also have struggled to develop accurate ways to assess who will reoffend, which leaves them on the hunt for warning signs that may suggest greater risk. Clues include a disregard for others' personal boundaries, or a tendency to fight and steal. Social isolation or pressure to be sexually active further elevates the risk, as do fantasies about forceful sex.
The case of Jesse Vierstra illustrates how difficult it is to predict who will be sexually aggressive.
Handsome, athletic and respectful of his coaches, Vierstra was well-liked growing up as the son of wealthy dairy farmers in Twin Falls, Idaho, the kind of place where elementary school kids walk home alone.
As a teenager, the biggest blots on Vierstra's record were a few traffic stops. But as soon as he left for college, the serious accusations started.
Several days into his freshman year at the University of Idaho in fall 2011, two students told authorities that Vierstra raped them. Both said consensual encounters turned violent after they refused sex. Authorities charged him with battery, which he pleaded down to disturbing the peace. Though a university disciplinary process cleared him, Vierstra was suspended during the inquiry and never re-enrolled.
In October 2012, a third woman — a freshman — said Vierstra raped her outside a fraternity party when he was visiting the campus for homecoming weekend.
The veteran detective assigned to investigate had a hunch: College rapists don't start there. And then he learned the stories of two high school girls from Twin Falls.
His notes of their interviews recorded the allegations:
In fall 2010, when Vierstra was a high school senior, a girl joined friends to watch a movie in his home theater. He separated the girl, a sophomore, from the group, pulled down her pants and, as she resisted, angrily insisted she wanted the sex he was forcing on her.
About a month later, the girl's friend, also a 15-year-old sophomore, went to Vierstra's house for a movie. On the ride home, he pulled into a parking lot. Though she resisted, she said, he penetrated her.
Several weeks later, he called apologetically and she agreed to hang out again. They drove to the family dairy, where she said he attempted to assault her but was interrupted by the arrival of one of his sisters. On the ride back, Vierstra insisted the girl get out near a corn field to watch the sunset. He pushed her into a ditch and, she told the detective, tried to force her to perform oral sex when he was unable to pull off her pants.
Neither girl reported the alleged assaults to authorities at the time. The second girl later told the detective it was her fault for hanging out with him again.
During Vierstra's 2013 sentencing for the university rape, the judge noted that he did not accept responsibility. "You use terms like 'the alleged victim,'" the judge said, "indicating that she's really not the victim."
Last fall, more than three years into a 5-to-15-year sentence, Vierstra was released in a plea deal when a new attorney argued that his first lawyer did not defend him competently.
"I wish I would have been a better man; I wish I would have had more respect for her," Vierstra said at his resentencing.
An AP reporter tried unsuccessfully to interview Vierstra, now 24, in Twin Falls, where he lives as a registered sex offender.
His mother, Susan Parnell, said he is working to be a good citizen and that his resentencing remarks shouldn't be interpreted as any suggestion of guilt.
False sexual assault accusations are "out of control" nationwide, Parnell said. She added that any woman who had "actually been assaulted, she should be able to go forward."
TREATMENT CAN WORK
It's unclear how many children and adolescents in the United States are undergoing treatment for sexual offenses. The latest count of 14,000, based on a 2008 survey of treatment providers, was an acknowledged underrepresentation.
Most adolescent offenders enter outpatient counseling, according to the survey, though there are residential programs, too, including some where the offenders attend local schools.
As an adolescent, Christopher Lee received treatment at a rural camp and in a group home. Since 2005, four days before he turned 19, he has been locked up in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.
From birth, Lee could hear well in only one ear and see well with only one eye. According to his case file, parts of which were released to AP with Lee's permission, family members abused him mentally and physically, though not sexually.
Growing up, Lee said he desperately sought connections but was too needy to keep friends and became a target for bullying. Lee said he channeled his aggression toward sex starting at 10, after a 12-year-old cousin who usually ignored him invited him under the covers. The girl undressed, then got on top of Lee. Someone came to the bedroom door and they stopped.
"I equated sex with love, acceptance, safety, security, friendship, life," Lee said. "It meant something more to me than what it should have."
When he was 12, a girl he liked began teasing him in the middle school pool. He said he responded by shoving his hand down her bathing suit, then forcing her to touch his crotch.
Minnesota officials civilly committed him for indefinite treatment after concluding he was likely to continue exposing himself to, masturbating in front of or peeping on other children — a pattern he admitted to during counseling for an arson case. He also sexually molested two relatives, according to his file.
When Lee first arrived, he was too angry to accept treatment. He has since made substantial progress, according to notes made by his primary therapist, but still may lash out when upset.
Inside the barbed-wire secure complex where he is locked up, Lee mused about the 700 or so other men also undergoing treatment, about 10 percent of whom offended only as juveniles. He has come to learn their stories through conversation or group therapy.
Some did it because they could, others because they were trying to deal with past trauma or because it made them feel powerful.
"The rhyme or reason as to why people offend," Lee said, "is infinite."
Pritchard reported from Los Angeles and Twin Falls, Idaho; Dunklin reported from Dallas and Commerce, Texas. Contributing to this report were Robin McDowell in St. Peter, Minnesota; Rhonda Shafner in New York; Gillian Flaccus in Beaverton, Oregon; and Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho.
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