The Girl in the Bathroom
The boys found Brianna huddled behind a partition in the back of their bathroom, her violin case and schoolbooks on the floor next to her. She’d been there for a while.
They snickered as a teacher came and went without seeing her. Brianna wouldn’t move. She wouldn’t ask for help.
Finally someone alerted the orchestra teacher, who coaxed her off the floor and out of the bathroom just as one of Ruskin High School’s off-duty police officers arrived.
Officer Debra Praschak escorted Brianna through the clutch of boys to the security office, where the two were met by Assistant Principal Vivian Brooks. Brianna didn’t know Praschak and had encountered Brooks only when she got in trouble for yelling at a teacher and breaking the school’s dress code.
She wouldn’t talk at first. But finally, the 14-year-old freshman told the women that she’d been pushed into the bathroom and forced to suck a boy’s dick.
Over the next three hours Brianna was passed from Praschak and Brooks to the school’s full-time security officer, John Delaney, and back. They told her it was impossible to force someone to give a blow job. They asked why she was in the hallway in the first place. They said her story wasn’t credible.
By then, it wasn’t. Brianna reacted to the interrogation by changing her story.
When Brooks finally called Brianna’s mother, Lisa Wilson (both the mother’s and daughter’s names have been changed for this story), Brooks suggested they meet the next morning and warned that Brianna should not come back to Ruskin without her mother.
Wilson forced a meeting that day instead. After her daughter had spent hours with school and law-enforcement officers, Wilson remembers her mumbling that she had “made a bad choice.”
But Wilson wondered if the bad choice had been hers in trusting the Hickman Mills School District to look after her daughter.
In an era when school officials tend to be hypervigilant about student behavior, Ruskin High School employees took a skeptical approach to a student’s report that she’d been raped, documents and interviews show. Although Brooks and two security officers knew little about Brianna, they decided on the spot that she was the sort of young woman who would willingly perform oral sex on two boys in a bathroom.
The result: School officials disregarded Brianna’s complaints that she suffered subsequent harassment from boys at the school after rumors about her spread through the student body. Then, two months after the first attack, Brianna says that Ruskin High School boys once again dragged her into a bathroom. This time, three boys held her down and raped her, she says.
The police are taking her more seriously than school officials did. On May 5, Kansas City, Missouri, police officers arrested an 18-year-old student connected with the first assault. A week later, police forwarded their investigation of three other 16-year-old boys connected with both attacks to juvenile court.
Brianna’s family is preparing to file a lawsuit to hold the school district accountable.
“I always thought there were two places children were safe,” Wilson says. “One was while they were with me at home, and the other was when they were at school. I thought they would protect her at all costs. How dumb I was.”
Wilson says school administrators told her that the two boys involved in the first bathroom assault received five-day suspensions. Not surprisingly, Wilson finds this inadequate.
She filed a complaint with the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department, challenging the conduct of off-duty officers Delaney and Praschak, who didn’t file a police report until two days after the first attack. The department’s investigation did not find that the officers had acted improperly.
District Superintendent Marge Williams cites privacy regulations in declining to talk specifically about the case or what happened to the students involved. She tells the Pitch that she did brief the school board about Brianna’s complaint at a board meeting last October.
“It wasn’t presented as a big deal, as I recall,” Board President David Bass tells the Pitch. “We were told it was handled appropriately.”
Williams says that when the situation was described to her, she decided that it could be handled by the principal and didn’t require her involvement. The district’s attorney, Chris Gahagan, says a two-member faculty team investigated and determined that Brianna’s allegations didn’t fall under the district’s sexual-harassment policies.
Gahagan says the officers and assistant principal simply didn’t believe Brianna. “If you believe she was sexually assaulted, obviously anything short of expulsion wouldn’t be enough.”
Not satisfied with the school’s handling of the matter, Wilson filed a police report on her own. She also lodged a complaint with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. And she has found an attorney who is considering a federal civil suit against the Hickman Mills School District.
Brianna was almost 4 when she
came to live with Wilson in November 1992. A photo taken at the time shows a little girl with light skin and long, dark hair. Brianna and her brother are biracial; and they were victims of abuse who had been exposed to HIV, though they never tested positive for it.
Wilson and her husband, who had no children of their own, eventually adopted Brianna and four other children.
The screen saver on the computer in Wilson’s kitchen displays a happy family’s slide show: a pool party last summer, Brianna and two of her friends after a junior high orchestra concert, Christmas morning with a decorated tree and mounds of presents.
Then there is a shot of Brianna’s arm, bruised where a boy had grabbed her to pull her into a school bathroom.
Wilson suspects that the abuse in her early childhood contributed to Brianna’s temper, which belies her sweet smile and has been only partly calmed by 11 years of therapy.
Brianna has never tolerated being bullied. Though she’s only 4 feet 10 even now, the girl was quick to anger and didn’t hesitate to square off.
“I was so mean,” she says. “I would get into fights. I would beat people up who would mess with me.”
Her mother says that, beginning in grade school, she was suspended at least once a year for fighting. And her friends say she had a particularly low tolerance for boys.
“I’ve seen Brianna yell at guys, chase after them,” says Sarah (not her real name), a friend of Brianna’s since the sixth grade. “She doesn’t take anything from anybody. If you say something she doesn’t like, she’s going to let you know about it. … If you don’t like it, tough.”
Hoping to instill some discipline in their volatile daughter, the Wilsons enrolled Brianna in the Young Marines program. At first, she resented the rigid rules, but she took to it and now dreams of being an officer after attending the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She’s leaning toward the nearby university so she doesn’t have to move away. “I don’t want to leave home,” she says. “My home is the safest place for me.”
In fact, Brianna has been homebound since the attacks, having her schoolwork delivered once a week or so by her orchestra teacher. She seems comfortable with the situation, spending most days tagging along on her mother’s accounting job or hanging around the house until her siblings rumble in.
Her room has filled with consolation gifts, dolls and stuffed animals. Because she was abused herself, Brianna once was fascinated by the subject. True-crime books fill half of her small bookshelf.
But she says that since her ordeal at Ruskin, she has put down Dan Lasseter’s Killer Kids and returned to Nancy Drew and Goosebumps. And she has started attending a Catholic church, going through baptism and wearing a pendant of St. Katharine Drexel. Drexel is a newish saint, an heiress who gave up her fortune to the church and devoted her life to helping people.
Though she has never earned very good grades herself, Brianna runs with a clique of good girls who study hard, eat together at lunch and don’t date. They’ve watched as more and more girls were tempted by boys or drugs. Now Brianna says she can hardly talk to them.
“It makes me nervous to be around them,” Brianna says. “It’s just nasty. Doing all that stuff so soon is not right.”
Brianna was on her way to
her violin from the music room when she heard the boy.
It was a typical errand. Like the rest of the students at Ruskin, Brianna had study hall during second period every other day. The students in Brianna’s class were allowed to get passes, two at a time, to leave the room.
As Brianna chatted with another girl at her locker, she heard an announcement calling members of the homecoming court to the art room for a meeting.
Going to the music room required a long walk to another part of the school.
“Hey, little girl with the big ass, come here,” she heard a boy call.
Brianna ignored him. After getting her violin and sheet music, she started back down the hall. The boy stepped out of the bathroom. He was tall and dark-skinned, with corn rows and tufts of facial hair. “Hey, little girl, come here.”
Then, she says, he pulled her into the bathroom. It was a bathroom that the football team used to get out to the practice field and it had a second door, which opened to the outside and was obscured by a dividing wall. Brianna says the boy pushed her to the floor behind the wall.
That’s as much as she can recount out loud in a conference room at the Randles & Mata law firm. Seated between attorney Rebecca Randles and her mother, Brianna closes her eyes. She looks down at her lap and then covers her face with her hands.
Unable to describe it out loud, she writes out a narrative for the Pitch, describing the blue-and-white bathroom reeking of urine, and how the boy in the red jersey let his sagging jeans fall to the floor and then dropped his boxers.
“His dick was sticking out right out in my face and I was very scared. So scared I couldn’t move,” Brianna writes. “I was still on my knees where I fell, and he started to wipe his dick all over my face. I told him to stop and he shoved his dick into my mouth and made me suck it.”
After what might have been 5 or 10 minutes, Brianna heard another boy’s voice say, “It’s time to go, man.”
“Then he pushed me off of him and he pulled his boxers up, then his pants, buttoned them, looked at me, told me he would kill me if I told anyone, then left,” she writes. “I felt like a huge slut. I curled up into a ball and felt very sick, like I was going to throw up. I had taste in my mouth.
“Another boy came into the bathroom, pulled me out of my ball and shoved his dick into my mouth … He had it in there for about 5 mins. Then he left after also telling me that he would kill me if I told anyone. When he left I curled back into a ball and cried.”
Brianna arose from her stupor at the 10:32 a.m. bell and the herd of boys that followed.
“They kept asking me why I was in the bathroom,” she tells the Pitch. “I was just staring at them, and one dude got up and went out.”
Rod Young had been Brianna’s orchestra teacher since the sixth grade. He had picked her to play first violin, an honor for a freshman.
But that day, she didn’t want him to touch her. “He had put his hand out for me to grab, and I pushed it away,” she says. “I kept pushing it away. I didn’t want anybody to touch me.”
Brianna finally agreed to leave the bathroom, but her ordeal was only beginning.
The Kansas City, Missouri,
Police Department’s internal affairs investigation file provides accounts of the conversations that followed as Brianna was questioned by police officers and her assistant principal. Adults tag-teamed the 14-year-old girl.
Praschak, a Kansas City police officer who works part time at the school as a security officer, was the first to ask Brianna what happened. “I asked Brianna why she was in the boys’ bathroom, and she would not talk for a while,” Praschak told detective Melinda Reno, according to a transcript that’s part of the police department’s investigation file that Wilson provided to the Pitch. “She just kept quiet. Finally she said that a boy had pushed her into the bathroom, and he made her suck his dick.”
Brianna’s first story was the one she tells today.
Brianna told Praschak that when the boy left, she heard him tell others what had happened and was too embarrassed to come out. She stayed there for half an hour, until the orchestra teacher arrived.
Brianna at first said she didn’t know the boy but thought he was a senior.
Praschak asked how the boy forced Brianna in the bathroom. Brianna said he just grabbed her arm and pulled her in. Praschak then asked Brianna what she was doing in the hallway during class, and Brianna mentioned her violin. Praschak then turned her attention to the blow job.
“I asked how he made her do that, if he had any weapons,” Praschak told police investigators. “And she said no, but he had a hold of her shoulders.”
Then Assistant Principal Brooks asked Brianna to write out what happened.
The first page of the three-page statement she wrote that day is Brianna’s basic account in her own rounded print. It’s similar to the version she more recently wrote for the Pitch.
On the bottom half of the page, Brooks added several notations in her own hand:
Did you scream?
No, did not hallow [sic] at all
He did not grab me hard
Officer Praschak checked for marks on
neck — no marks found
Glasses did not fall off
The discrediting lines support the impression Brianna had of her interview with the assistant principal. “She kept asking me the same question over and over and over and over again, until she finally got me to admit it was my fault,” Brianna tells the Pitch. “Why were you in the boys’ bathroom? Why didn’t you scream if it really happened?”
On the second page, Brianna wrote that the boy was angry because she wouldn’t do what he asked. “I started to get scared, so I gave him a 20 min. head job so he wouldn’t hert [sic] me.”
At the bottom, Brianna added in lighter ink: “I chose to give him a 20 min head job.”
Brooks told the police investigator that she directed Brianna to add the sentence. “She told me verbally and so I asked — told her to write that down,” Brooks said.
Brooks admitted to the investigators that she had been frustrated with Brianna. “Brianna wasn’t giving us anything … she didn’t know anything, what the person looked like … she could not recall,” Brooks told police.
According to her statement, Brianna offered few details. Her attacker was tall and African-American. He wore jeans and a jersey but no glasses.
Praschak told Brianna she was just down the hall and asked why she didn’t scream.
Brianna can’t explain now why she changed her story. She says she was starting to panic because she felt the attack was her fault. Whatever the reason, Brianna says she began making things up.
“She told me that she knew the boy and that they ‘meet up in the hallway sometimes to kiss and make out,'” Praschak told police investigators. “She then changed her story and said that she went into the bathroom with him willingly to make out. Brianna said that once he told her to have sex with him, she told him no and he pushed her to the ground.”
According to transcripts of the police department’s internal investigation, Praschak told Brianna she needed to know who the boy was so they could find him and arrest him. “That’s when she started to get upset and she started to get real quiet again,” Praschak said. “She started to cry.”
The two women then passed Brianna to Delaney. The reserve police officer worked full time at Ruskin. Brianna said she might feel more comfortable talking to him because she knew him.
Delaney said they talked alone for only about 5 minutes. “I think I told Brianna that it was really difficult to be forced to have oral sex unless the suspect held a weapon to your head. I think I did say that,” Delaney told investigators.
“We asked her how he forced her to suck or to make a sucking motion, and she was not able to explain that,” Praschak said. “She did not say he was hurting her, threatening to hurt her, held her head or anything like that to make her suck.”
“We never said she was a liar or anything like that,” Delaney said. “But we told her that we needed to know the truth so we could find out who the party was and move on with what needed to be done.”
Apparently what needed to be done was nothing. Praschak said she called the police department’s juvenile unit and told a detective that Brianna willingly performed oral sex. Praschak told investigators that a detective from the juvenile unit told her she didn’t need to write up a report.
Brooks finally called Brianna’s mother at 1:30 p.m.
The message she left on Wilson’s answering machine didn’t inspire confidence that she had spent much time getting to know the student in her care. Brooks mangled Brianna’s name on the message.
In the hour between Brooks’ call and Wilson’s arrival, Brianna was sent to school counselor Shelli Copas.
Copas told police investigators that Brianna said, “I made a mistake. I made a really big mistake.” The counselor recalled that Brianna “said that she had gone into the boys’ bathroom to kiss a boy.” Copas added, “I don’t remember if she said she did something she didn’t want to do or something she shouldn’t have done.”
By then, Brianna had told her story to four people. She didn’t tell any of them about the second boy.
“They didn’t believe me about the first one. Why should I tell them about the second one?” she says now.
When Wilson finally arrived,
her daughter crawled into her lap, unable to tell her what happened. Wilson ultimately was briefed by Delaney.
The next day, Wilson was at the school as Brianna went through the yearbook to find a picture of the boy who had dragged her into the bathroom.
The picture she chose was a senior, a football player and member of the homecoming court.
Brooks was surprised and seemed skeptical, Wilson says. “I could just tell from the look on Ms. Brooks’ face, ‘I don’t believe it.'”
According to Brooks’ statement to internal affairs, the assistant principal had nothing to do with the investigation after the first day and didn’t talk to Wilson again. She said she passed it on to another assistant principal, who was in charge of the seniors.
But Wilson saved a message from the day Brianna pointed out the picture in the yearbook. After mispronouncing Brianna’s name again, Brooks told Wilson’s answering machine, “The man she identified has been certified as being in class. We are concerned about her safety. We suggest she not be in the hall … We will be happy to follow any leads she can give us.”
Brooks seemed interested in cloistering Brianna, but she may have been responsible for freeing Brianna’s attackers from class: It was Brooks’ voice that Brianna heard over the intercom releasing the homecoming court. And a friend of Brianna’s who served on the court says that the two boys were 15 minutes late for the meeting in the art room.
Wilson was livid. She believed that school officials were deferring to police officers, and police officers back to the school. Neither, she thought, was taking appropriate action.
Wilson says she was convinced that Brooks was trying to protect the boy because he was an athlete. After she called school board member Luther Chandler to complain about the attack on her daughter, the school’s response and what she perceived to be the boy’s special treatment, she got a follow-up call from Assistant Superintendent Darryl Cobb. Wilson says Cobb told her one of the boys had told school officials that Brianna had actually given two consensual blow jobs in the bathroom.
Wilson says Cobb told her the boys would be disciplined in a way that would affect them for the rest of their lives. But Cobb didn’t hesitate to pile on Brianna. “He told me that if my daughter had stayed where she was supposed to be, this wouldn’t have occurred,” she says.
The district offered to let Brianna transfer to the district’s other high school, Hickman Mills.
“Brianna said that she didn’t want to lose her position in the orchestra,” Wilson explains. “She didn’t want to lose her chair. She didn’t want to lose her position on the [ROTC] drill team. She didn’t want to give up her friends, and she thought she could handle it.”
Ruskin High School sophomore
Bruce Thomas had never heard a rumor spread so quickly and widely.
Thomas, whose name has been changed for this story, says things had happened at parties that fueled gossip. Girls had done things to boys and vice versa. There is a girl in Thomas’ class who is said to have been with a lot of boys. There are eight girls he can think of who are pregnant or have new babies.
But Thomas never saw anything spread so fast as the story of “that light-skinned girl who was giving head in the restroom.”
He heard people talking about it for two days before he learned they were talking about Brianna, a girl he’d known since sixth grade.
“Then everyone started telling her name and pointing her out,” Thomas says. “Even the geeky nerds who don’t know anything had heard it, every principal, every teacher, everybody. Everybody who had a soul knew about it … my sister even heard about it.”
Sarah heard the stories, too. In one version, the boys forced themselves on Brianna. In the other, she was a willing participant.
The second story quickly won out, and Brianna became the freshman slut people stared at as she passed. She became the object of derisive comments. Some she was able to shrug off, but others hit home. “I’ve seen her running down the hall crying to people,” Thomas says. Sarah says the trauma took a toll on Brianna and their group of friends, many of whom abandoned Brianna, though she might have played a roll in chasing them away. “She was just quiet and just snapping at everybody, ‘Everybody just leave me alone,'” Sarah says.
Sarah and Thomas stuck by their friend.
“She sets very high values for herself,” Sarah says. “She didn’t even know the guy. Why would she voluntarily give him head? He’s not even cute.”
But in the court of high school opinion, Brianna didn’t have much chance. “He’s the popular guy, and she’s a freshman,” Sarah explains.
Both of the boys who acknowledged being in the bathroom with Brianna played football.
Thomas says one was a senior known as a “girl magnet.” The other was a sophomore football standout who had 90 tackles in an otherwise poor football season.
The notoriety didn’t hurt their stock any, Thomas says. “Actually, people gave them props and stuff.”
School administrators didn’t
seem to care.
Brianna says Brooks was unimpressed with her stories of being harassed in the hallways. “I told her people are threatening me,” Brianna says. “She told me she didn’t have time for it.”
Gahagan, the district’s attorney, says he has talked to Brooks, another assistant principal and a couple of other staff members at Ruskin, who told him there were no reports about Brianna being harassed or threatened. “They have never been approached about that,” Gahagan says. “There didn’t appear to be an issue with her continued presence in the building.”
But Brooks told police investigators that Brianna came to her office at least twice. On October 16, she complained that some boys were looking at her and calling her names. Brooks said she sent Brianna to the counselor for mediation. On October 27, Brooks said Brianna told her that a boy had run past her and said, “[He’s] going to beat the shit out of you, bitch.”
Brooks expressed frustration that Brianna didn’t know who the boy was. Brianna didn’t know any of the boys. They were faces in the hall, voices echoing past her.
Wilson is sure that Principal James Tinsley was aware of what Brianna was going through. Wilson saved phone messages Tinsley left on October 16 and October 28. Tinsley suggested that Brianna needed to grab a nearby teacher the next time she was harassed by someone she didn’t know.
On November 19, Brianna was harassed by someone she knew all too well.
The first indication that something had happened to Brianna came during second period. Brianna’s teacher noticed that instead of working on the class assignment, the girl was writing that she hated herself over and over.
She sent Brianna to counselor Copas.
“Brianna told me that [the sophomore involved in the first assault] was standing in the hall with a bunch of boys and said, ‘That girl gave it up good. She wanted it,'” Copas told police investigators. “Brianna told me that she was on her way to her locker that morning before school when that conversation took place. I asked her if she was with anybody, and she said no. I said, ‘Brianna, is there something you need from me? What can I do for you?’ She said, ‘No.'”
But as Copas was calling Brianna’s parents, the girl handed her a note that said, “I am under my rock. Leave me alone and don’t touch me.”
Brianna’s father came to collect her from school.
Copas told police investigators that she called in the sophomore to ask him about what had happened. The boy told her that he and another student had been late to school because they stopped at McDonald’s.
Brianna had begun to talk about wanting to die, so her father took her to St. Joseph Health Center and then to Research Psychiatric Center, where she spent a month. There, doctors diagnosed her as severely depressed and having post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociative disorder.
The doctors’ report hints only slightly at what actually happened on November 19. The report says Brianna was suffering psychological trauma because she had been raped and had lost her virginity.
If Brianna’s reaction to school administrators following the first attack made her seem less than credible, her reaction to a second attack may have destroyed her chances at justice.
She kept it secret for more than a month.
Shocked by seeing her attacker again outside Truman Corners shopping center two days before Christmas, Brianna finally told her mother she had been raped by three boys the morning of her November 19 breakdown.
School officials are skeptical about this attack, but Brianna is steadfast in her story.
The boys had taunted her at her locker, like she told the counselor. But the confrontation didn’t end there. Brianna says boys chased her to the locked orchestra room and then into the girls’ bathroom.
One of the boys covered her face with a jersey and forced her onto her back.
“Then he took his hands and unbuttoned my pants and pulled them down to my feet,” she wrote later in an account of the attack. “One boy held my feet and one held my hands. Then [one] put his dick up my crotch and took my virginity.”
The other two boys took their turns, she said.
Wilson couldn’t understand why her daughter had kept that secret. But Brianna had seen what happened when she tried to report a sexual assault at Ruskin. It had brought her only guilt and blame and harassment.
“I had just lost my virginity,” Brianna told her. “I thought you would think less of me.”
Wilson has recruited Robert
Jones, a former Kansas City, Missouri, School District official, as an advocate in negotiating the complex laws and policies that govern how schools deal with violence between students.
In his role with the Kansas City School District, Jones both advised and disciplined teachers and administrators. He says none of the other metropolitan area districts would have handled Brianna the way Ruskin did.
“The school blew it. They totally mishandled it,” Jones says. “When the child comes to you and says, ‘I’ve been raped,’ you have two choices as an administrator. You can hotline it [report it to the state as child abuse], or you can pass it on [to district-level administrators]. You don’t have any other choices.
“They met with her and tried to convince her it didn’t happen,” Jones says. “Then they tried to convince her she was party to it.”
Jones says Brianna never should have gone through the extensive questioning on the first day.
“When she said she was forced into the restroom and they made physical contact with her, it should have gone from school to police,” he says, referring to actual officers on duty, not the off-duty guards at the school. “The definition of rape was surely passed at that point.”
Records show that Ruskin High School and its district have dealt with similar cases in the past. Brooks was employed at the school in 1998 when 15-year-old Renee Bokelman and her parents sued the district in federal court. Bokelman claimed school officials did nothing to stop a boy from calling her names and demanding sex. The suit eventually settled out of court for $10,000, though the district denied any wrongdoing.
A year later, Kenneth C. Hedicke, a math teacher at the district’s Hickman Mills High School, was accused of having sex with a 16-year-old student at least ten times in a classroom. Hedicke was convicted of two counts of statutory rape and three counts of statutory sodomy and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Gahagan says the school district provides annual training for its faculty and staff on how to deal with sexual harassment.
But Jones says the way they approached Brianna prompted the girl to change her story.
“She responded just like any other young lady who would have been raped did,” Jones says. “She was so beat down by this woman telling her that she wanted it.”
Officers who doubted that Brianna could have been forced to give blow jobs against her will should have known better.
“Absolutely you can force oral sex,” says John Leibnitz, a spokesman for the Jackson County prosecutor’s office. The crime is called forcible sodomy even if the victim doesn’t suck, Leibnitz says. If the perpetrator simply rubs his penis in the victim’s face, Leibnitz says, the crime is attempted forcible sodomy. The prosecutor’s office sees dozens of cases each year in which victims have been threatened and forced to perform sexual acts, he says.
Jones has no doubt that the bungling of Brianna’s first interview and the relative slap on the wrist that the district imposed on the two boys set the stage for the second attack.
Attorney Randles wants to hold the district accountable for its treatment of Brianna. She expects to proceed with a federal civil lawsuit unless “the little girl is not capable of going forward or the district does what’s right by her.”
If the case goes to trial, Randles knows she faces a challenge in Brianna’s believability. “It always hurts when you have a credibility issue.”
Randles says the story of the second attack could be hard to prove. But Randles says it may be enough to tell the story of what they can easily substantiate: That the district grilled a girl who came forward to say she was attacked and that it failed to adequately protect her from harassment by her fellow students. Randles intends to ask the district to pay for Brianna to attend school somewhere else and to take steps to keep other girls from going through the same ordeal as Brianna.