School Climate & Safety

High School Rape Case Becomes Flashpoint in Immigration Debate

By Corey Mitchell — March 24, 2017 9 min read
Plastic cups spell out Rockville Strong, at Rockville High School in Rockville, Md., this week. The school has been thrust into the national immigration debate after a 14-year-old student said she was raped in a bathroom, allegedly by two classmates, both of whom authorities have said came to the U.S. illegally from Central America.
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An alleged rape in a bathroom stall at a suburban Maryland high school has become the white-hot center of the national debate on immigration, raising questions about public schools’ legal obligations to educate students regardless of immigration status and about blind spots in school safety.

The two suspects in the case, both undocumented immigrant male students from Central America, came to the United States on their own within the last year to join relatives already living in the country. They enrolled at Rockville High School in Rockville, Md., soon after.

Now they sit behind bars, charged with forcing a 14-year-old female student into a boys’ bathroom and repeatedly assaulting her.

The case and its searing details captured the attention of the White House. It has garnered national headlines, sparked fear among parents, and renewed concerns among anti-immigration advocates about why the United States has admitted tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, many of whom are fleeing violence and unrest in their home countries.

School officials in Montgomery County, Md.—a Washington suburb and home to one of the nation’s 20 largest school systems—have expressed profound sorrow and apologies for the alleged rape, pledging more vigilant security and assuring parents that their children’s schools are safe.

But they’ve been forced to spend as much time explaining their legal duty to enroll students regardless of their immigration status and urging the public not to judge an entire immigrant community based on one disturbing incident. Hispanic students make up 30 percent of the enrollment in the 159,000-student district.

The teenagers accused in the sexual assault, 18-year-old Henry Sanchez Milian and 17-year-old Jose Montano, were enrolled in a program designed for newly arrived students who do not speak English.

“Some individuals are using this horrific event to cast a negative light over an entire population,” said Diego Uriburu, the executive director of Identity Inc., which works with Hispanic youth and families in Montgomery County. “The population feels more scared now. It is very difficult for these young people and for Latinos, in general, even for those born in the United States.”

A former schools police chief in Georgia, Michael Dorn, said the divisive politics of immigration should not subsume the horrific nature of the alleged crime and the bigger issue of sexual assault in K-12 schools, which he argues receives too little attention.

“Unfortunately, the problems of sexual assault in K-12 schools is not at the forefront of our national discussion on school safety ...and it’s a pretty significant issue,” said Dorn, who runs the Atlanta-based Safe Havens International Inc., a nonprofit school-safety organization. “We don’t really have an opinion on whether the status of students is legal or illegal. Our focus is ‘How did the event occur?’”

Alleged Assault

The alleged Rockville assault happened in a restroom that’s in a “sort of secluded area of the school,” early in the morning on a regular school day, Montgomery County police Capt. James Humphries told parents during a public forum at the high school earlier this week. The two male students allegedly dragged the victim into a bathroom and took turns assaulting her while she cried out in pain, begging them to stop.

Along with unlocked classrooms and unmonitored stairwells, restroom stalls are often trouble spots for schools—so much so that some schools now use security devices posted outside that can detect unusual activity, Dorn said.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education reported that its office for civil rights had Title IX sexual violence investigations pending in nearly 100 school districts. But statistics that detail how frequently sexual assaults occur in K-12 schools are hard to come by, though their reported incidence is relatively rare, according to federal data.

In 2013, 3 percent of students ages 12–18 reported being victimized at school during the previous six months, according to the most recent edition of a federal report known as Indicators of School Crime and Safety. Two percent of students reported theft, 1 percent reported violent victimization, and less than one-half of 1 percent reported serious violent victimization, a category that includes rape and sexual assault.

A 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 10 percent of high school girls say they have been forced to have sex. A 2009 Justice Department survey found that 18.7 percent of 14- to 17-year-old girls have experienced an attempted or completed sexual assault. But neither of the reports reveals how often the assaults or coerced sex happen on school campuses.

“We only really know the half of it, because all our information, all of the data that we have is based on self-reporting, and that obviously only tells us so much,” said Alexandra Brodsky, a fellow with the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center.

Brodsky argues that the Trump administration—which has taken an aggressive stance on immigrants who are living illegally in the Unites States—wants to use the Rockville High incident to broadly indict immigrants, as part of a coordinated effort to manipulate public fears and rally support for ramped-up enforcement.

“This isn’t a new thing,” she said. “We know that violence against women has been used as a justification for attacks on undocumented people and on black people for over a century.”

Schools’ Legal Duty

A 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe, prohibits public schools from asking for the immigration status of any child and his or her parents as part of the enrollment process. That means public schools legally cannot deny access to public education, whether a student or parent is residing here legally or not.

Montgomery County police said neither suspect in the rape case had a prior criminal history in the United States, or known gang ties. Both remain jailed without bond.

As President Donald Trump has sought to drum up popular support for his efforts to ramp-up immigration enforcement, he has highlighted some of the most sensational crimes committed by immigrants. His administration and anti-immigration activists have seized on the Rockville High incident, pointing to it as the latest hard proof that undocumented immigrants pose a serious threat to safety and that stricter enforcement is necessary.

“School should be a safe place for children,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said earlier this week when asked about the case. “Part of the reason that the president has made illegal immigration and crackdown such a big deal is because of tragedies like this. Immigration [takes] its toll on our people if it’s not done legally.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos weighed in as well, ahead of a short visit to another Montgomery County school, though she made no mention of the immigration status of the suspects or the legal duty of schools to enroll all students.

“As a mother of two daughters and grandmother of four young girls, my heart aches for the young woman and her family at the center of these terrible circumstances,” she said in the statement. “We all have a common responsibility to ensure every student has access to a safe and nurturing learning environment.”

Two studies released this month, one from the Sentencing Project, which advocates for changes to sentencing policies, and the other from the libertarian think tank Cato Institute, confirmed past reports that immigrants, including undocumented residents, commit crimes at lower rates than do native-born Americans. The reports don’t offer breakdowns of crimes rates of school-age children.

The Trump administration now publishes a weekly list of crimes committed by immigrants through its recently created office of VOICE, Victims of Immigration Crime Enforcement Office.

School districts around the country have been dealing with the fallout from the radical change in immigration policy from the Obama administration to the Trump White House.

“Any time that we react politically through superlatives or through generalizations, at the very least, we hurt people,” said Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of the Miami-Dade school district in Florida, and a former undocumented immigrant who came to the United States from Portugal.

“We should actually be incensed and take action against anyone who does wrong, but [to] generalize and put everyone under the same umbrella just on a basis of country of origin, immigration status... it is disturbing that we would elevate what stands as exceptions as a national narrative that paints it as the rule.”

Existing Tensions

President Trump signed an executive order in January halting a government program that allows Central American children to seek refugee status in the United States. The order also allows federal agents to immediately turn away asylum seekers caught trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. (Since the end of 2013, more than 150,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America have entered the United States, according to data from the federal immigration authorities.)

With that policy in place, more deportations and other actions taken by the Trump administration, schools should see a decrease in the number of undocumented students arriving at their doorsteps, said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for lower immigration levels.

“Schools are going to be dealing with the fallout of Obama’s Central American policy for quite a while, but it’s probably not going to get much bigger,” Krikorian said. “It’s going to be gang issues, and then they’re going to have to just keep dealing with the so-called unaccompanied minors that have already been dumped on them.”

Educators argue that language used to stoke fear over immigrant students only inflames existing tensions. Rockville High and its immigrant students have been the targets of racist and xenophobic phone and email threats in the days since the alleged assault occurred, including a caller who threatened to “come shoot all of the ‘illegals’ in the school,” according to Derek Turner, the spokesman for Montgomery County’s school district.

“There’s these language barriers. There’s these stereotypes of these people as criminals, that they are bringing crime,” said Ernesto Castenada-Tinoco, an assistant sociology professor at American University. “People assume they are here taking advantage of opportunities, that they are here and that means that the other kids are going to get less of something.”

In 2000, the federal government rejected a request by the Anaheim Union High School District in Southern California for help in billing foreign countries for the cost of educating undocumented immigrant children. The district’s school board at the time had asked the federal government to reimburse the school district for the cost of educating the children and negotiate with the countries to recover the funds.

The district’s approach to educating immigrant students has changed markedly in the time since, Superintendent Michael Matsuda said. The school system is among dozens across the country that have adopted so-called safe zone policies, reaffirming their commitment to serve students regardless of their immigration status.

Matsuda’s parents were Japanese-Americans who were forced into internment camps in World War II. His mother was a freshman at Anaheim High, a school in the district he now oversees, when the federal government ordered her and her family to relocate to a camp in Arizona.

“The sort of scapegoating that went against an entire ethnic group, there’s some of that going on right now,” Matsuda said. “We really need to reflect on the role of public schools in a democracy, in very tumultuous times.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2017 edition of Education Week as School Rape Case Inflames Immigration Fight


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