TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL) – An analysis of crimes reported by children who attend the region’s largest school districts found more than 6,000 cases reported last school year. According to public records, those reported crimes included rape, forcible fondling, aggravated assault and more.
The reports identified 14 cases of forcible fondling, including one at Boones Creek Elementary School and another at Jonesborough Middle School.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office charged a 12-year-old JMS student with sexual battery and the school district suspended her for 10 days after a forcible fondling report filed in April 2016, according to WCSO Capt. Greg Matherly. He says investigators also referred the case to the Department of Children’s Services.
The Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office took 12 reports of forcible fondling last school year, including cases at Blountville, Central Heights, Emmett and Ketron elementary schools, Sullivan East High School, Holston Valley Middle School and six at Bluff City Middle School.
Prosecutors say several of those BCMS cases were connected to the same student and his actions on the bus, but none of the cases resulted in criminal charges. Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus says in the four connected cases the children did not want to testify.
“It was inappropriate and it bothered the kids,” Staubus said. “They said, ‘We just want him to leave us alone.’ The school suspended the boy and we haven’t had any reported incidents since.”
One BCMS forcible fondling case from November 2015 remains under investigation, according to SCSO.
“That’s bad,” Jessica Reynolds, who has three kids who attend the school, said. “I would never expect that from this school.”
In Johnson City, a Science Hill High School student reported a classmate raped her in February 2016. The report did not result in criminal charges.
“The case has been cleared exceptionally,” Johnson City Police Department Officer Stephen Bowman said. “This indicates a suspect is known, but facts and circumstances of the case have led the district attorney to decide against pursuing prosecution or the victim has decided not to pursue prosecution against said person.”
JCPD Sgt. John Hames says the case reportedly occurred at school and involved a 15-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl.
“A significant amount of time and investigation went into this case, and it was not prosecuted,” Sgt. Hames said. “It seems some assertions could not be validated.”
The reports, obtained through public records requests, showed a total of eight reported aggravated assaults, 14 cases of possession of pornography/obscene material, 20 fights and more than 100 assaults in the school districts of Johnson City, Kingsport, Bristol, Sullivan County and Washington County.
Sullivan South High School tallied the most assaults/fights with 17, followed by Liberty Bell Middle School with 13, Tennessee High School with 12 and Vance Middle School with 10.
The reports included three cases of indecent exposure. Two of the cases were reported at Andrew Johnson Elementary in Kingsport in early 2016.
“In both cases, the suspects were either gone on arrival or the complaint was unfounded and the call was closed out with no citizen contact,” Kingsport Police Department Public Information Officer Tom Patton said.
Bristol Tennessee Police responded to an indecent exposure call in September 2015 at Tennessee High School. BTPD Chief Blaine Wade says police charged a student with indecent exposure through juvenile court after he exposed himself to his class as a prank.
Police also took reports for 24 drug-related crimes. Tennessee High and Science Hill High School each had seven drug-related cases apiece. Law enforcement responded to 10 calls about weapons on school grounds at area districts. Sullivan Central had four calls connected to weapons and Tennessee High had two. Chief Wade says those two cases at Tennessee High involved brass knuckles and a folding pocket knife. He says both students were charged through juvenile court.
Officers in Sullivan and Washington counties also took 14 reports of possession of pornography, which includes sexting. Daniel Boone High School had the most cases with eight.
Despite the number of reports, JCPD School Resource Officer Lorrie Goff says the most serious crimes are “rare occurrences.”
“Schools truly are the safest place for your kids to be,” she said.
Goff says the relationships she and other SROs build with students are the biggest key to keeping schools safe.
“If you don’t have the kids’ trust then they don’t feel comfortable coming to you when they have a concern,” she said.
Still, despite law enforcement’s best efforts, the thousands of reported crimes show there are, occasionally, problems.
“It’s sad. It does happen,” SCSO Capt. Joey Strickler said. “Unfortunately, we’re going to have bad things to happen in school. We can’t fix that.”
That said, Strickler says investigators can and do commit to properly investigating every one of those cases. He says a team of law enforcement officers, advocates, Department of Children’s services investigators and prosecutors decides if there’s enough evidence to move forward and what’s ultimately best for the alleged victim.
“It might be in the best interest of the child not to proceed with it,” Capt. Strickler said. “Maybe the child has emotional issues or the child has been through so much that they can’t get on the stand to testify.”
When there are substantiated cases, area school districts say they take action.
“Bristol Tennessee City Schools takes student safety and discipline very seriously; thus appropriate punishment – up to and including expulsion – will follow evidence of student wrongdoing,” BTCS spokesperson Rebecca Craddock said.
“We utilize our Rights & Responsibilities Handbook for all discipline offenses,” Sullivan County Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski said. “When reports are made to our staff their first call is to the authorities: DCS and the Sheriff’s Department.”
Although, Jessica Reynolds was surprised and bothered by the crimes reported at her kids’ school, at the least, she feels confident the teachers and administrators are looking out for her children.
“I guess some things get past them,” Reynolds said. “The staff in there is really great about handling it too, so I give them a big thumbs up.”