The Commonwealth of Virginia has some issues. The General Assembly is running sideways trying to stuff in as many legislative agenda items that they can prior to Glenn Youngkin and the new regime taking over the second week of January. The political climate in Virginia is as fragile as black ice — one misstep and you’re sliding all over I-95 asking for Jesus to take the wheel. The Commonwealth, however, has an underlying issue that’s only whispered in the smallest corners of the ladies rooms in the Capitol. Virginia has a sexual assault problem - against kids.
Over the last two years, sexual assaults have been reported over and over again and have been buried under the anvils of mainstream news. The details are told in small snippets where the main headlines are stories about football games…and gardening…and articles about fining people who park on their front lawn. Sexual assault is j not a topic that people want to read about or hear about when they tune into the news. A zebra being decapitated by a kayak flying off of the highway will get national press, but when children are being sexually assaulted in Virginia schools, coverage is nominal and responses are close to nonexistent. What will it take for our country to want to protect little girls and boys? This area is a gap in the #MeToo Movement — women of our country should be falling all over themselves to protect our most vulnerable, but that charge gets lost in translation. How do we solve this? What will it take to amplify the stories that are uncomfortable to discuss in order to be a rallying cry for the unprotected?
You might say, “Hold on, wait — I heard of a sexual assault in a school in Virginia” and that absolutely could be true. There was a sexual assault case that did receive national coverage — not because it was a sexual assault, but because the father was arrested for speaking before the school board. That case happened in Loudon County, where a student was charged with not one but TWO sexual assaults in two different schools in the district with two different victims. That student is now waiting to be sentenced and the families involved are currently in litigation. However, my questionis “What’s next?” As school boards have beckoned the Justice Department to intervene at school board meetings where the MAGA Mob has girded themselves with doxing people over mask mandates, legitimate issues that stomp on the side of extreme are glossed over and covered up like a flaw in a kitchen table.
We can now label areas in Virginia as school sexual assault hotspots — Loudon, Suffolk, Richmond,Williamsburg, Newport News and now Fairfax. An Alexandra Carl Sandburg Middle School student has been charged with abduction and attempted sexual battery after the student forced a female student on her knees and unbuttoned his pants when the student didn’t bring him a carton of milk from the school cafeteria. He was caught before the actual assaultcould take place, but the damage is already done. Another Virginia county can be added to the list to represent where young students don’t matter and this is far from okay.
Ralph Northam made a statement following the unearthing of what happened in Loudon County, but where’s the action plan? The Legislative arm of the Commonwealth has been too busy leveraging their influence to cover other things. After the Blackface incident, the Virginia Black Legislative Caucus has had Ralph Northam by the short and curlies, pushing all kinds of agenda items through that had no hopes of movement prior to his photographs from medical school making front page news. I’m not saying that those things aren’t important — what I’m saying is that the opportunities to champion long-lasting improvements to the Virginia Department of Education were cast into the shadows. Marijuana dispensaries? Great. But when the Virginia legislature passes laws that make it so principals in schools can discern whether they are going to report misdemeanor crimes like sexual assault to the police, that’s not only wrong, but it spits in the face of young girls and boys who are the victims of these crimes. Who speaks for them? Who amplifies their voices when a government that is elected to protect them fails to act?
The cases above are times where there have been charges and the assailants have been held accountable. Everyone loves a personal story, so let me tell you mine. In March of 2020, I was contacted by the principal of my daughter’s elementary school. He proceeded to tell me that my then seven-year-old daughter had been sexually assaulted at school. What’s worse? He then informed me that the multiple sexual assaults started close to TWO SCHOOL YEARS prior. After I lost my mind, I went to the school, grabbed my baby and went home with her to sob into the night. We found out on a Monday — I kept her out of school Tuesday through Friday, and the next Monday, the district let out for pandemic leave and didn’t return for the rest of the school year. I approached my school district with four things. First, I asked for them to test my daughter for gifted programming. One of the reasons why my husband and I didn’t notice a problem is because my daughter’s grades were stellar. My thought process was “If she could keep her grades like this WHILE this was occurring, what can she do when it’s not?” The school district refused at first, but then out of the blue gave my daughter a testing date. She tested and didn’t qualify, and I was okay with that. My only ask was that she be tested so that we could rule that component out and move to what came next.
Secondly, I requested that the district place my daughter and my son (who had just reached school age) in the school of my family’s choice. They refused. Thirdly, I asked that they ensure that my daughter and her rapist never be in the same school again and that my daughter be given priority. Again, a no. Lastly, I asked for the district to cover my family’s therapy costs. Again, a refusal. Through this entire process, I couldn’t understand how a school district that allocated $150,000 to rename five schools couldn’t honor simple requests that were low-lifts for them to accomplish. The day I found out about my daughter’s assaults, I had a conversation with the chair of my local NAACP and the chair of the school board. They feigned concern, but at the end of the day, they both proved to be more political than moral. I gave the district ample time to respond and waited almost a year before I made my first public statement via social media and over a year before I spoke before the school board. After my first statement, the Executive Director of Marketing and Public Relations and FOIA Officer released a statement to the media, reducing my daughter’s REPEATED rapes to “two female students meeting in the bathroom,” as if my daughter and her rapist (yes, my daughter was assaulted by a female student) were meeting in the bathroom to play dominos.
What school system am I referring to? I’m talking about Hampton City Schools. Dr. Jeffrey O. Smith, the current superintendent, is more concerned with congratulating himself on other people’s work and trying to sell HCS’s curriculum to the highest bidder than being a champion for the students that he is entrusted to protect. Ann Stephens Cherry, Chairman of the Hampton School Board, knew about what happened to my daughter Day One but has refused to act on her behalf. She spent the entire October 2021 school board meeting taking jabs and making sarcastic statements towards me from her dais, then while I spoke before the school board, interrupted me because I lowered my mask while being at least 50 feet from the nearest person, even though for three hours straight, she had her mask under her nose. I’m now banned from speaking at school board meetings because the Hampton School Board never wanted to hear what it was I had to say. (see “Banned from the Board: Board Bullies Try to Silence Rape”) They did not want to be confronted with the fact that my daughter was repeatedly raped on their watch and they did nothing to prevent it or protect her. Because Hampton City Schools could not keep my daughter safe, we had to remove her from the district and take on struggle and expense that, while worth it, has done us irreparable harm.
Alongside this, there are other failures. Anton Bell, the Hampton Commonwealth Attorney, is more interested in protecting my daughter’s rapist than he is interested in protecting my daughter. His office made the decision not to charge my daughter’s assailant because of her age. She is eighteen months older than my daughter and I understand reservations in regards to putting her in jail. But what’s true here? The juvenile justice system is a system intent on rehabilitation. I honestly believe that this child either saw something or had something done to her that made her think it was okay to do these things to my daughter. Charging her and then asking for provisions to be put in place to make sure she receives therapy and wraparound services is not outside of his scope. I could have said this to him, but again, we weren’t his concern. He didn’t ask us for our opinion. Since there was no charge, my daughter wasn’t a victim. There were no services for her through Victims Services. There was no follow-up or follow-through. All that remained was a signature and a secretary to file my daughter’s trauma in storage. (see “Rape. Murder. Non-Response. (for Megan)”)
And the aftermath? Dr. Richard Mason, Vice-Chair of the Hampton School Board, made a statement in the October School Board meeting where he said “Trauma is longitudinal.” What that means is that childhood trauma has long-lasting effects that can affect a person well into adulthood. Why did he say this? Well, there was a shooting in the nearby school district of Newport News and Hampton City Schools was trying to capitalize off of their tragedy. He made the statement not knowing that his very words defined what happened to my daughter. He was at a community event not long after that where my family was in attendance. I threw his words back at him like a dagger in front of his small fan club, then left the event, girded with what was left of my dignity. The next day, this man went to the local magistrate and filed a restraining order against me saying that I said I was trying to “Get him,” and that people had to stop me from “reaching him.” What makes this story so farfetched? I have been limited to nonweight bearing on my left foot after being hospitalized and having major surgery in August. What does that mean? I have been in an Aircast since April and ON CRUTCHES since August. We went to court and the judge threw his protective order request out, as she should have. But this man chose to weaponize the court system against me because he did not want to hear my voice. I was not arrested like the father in Loudon, but as a woman of color, the court system was thrown at me in an attempt to scare me and break my resolve. (see “Rape, Restraining Orders, Resilience and a Little Girl Caught in the Crossfire”)
I’m a passionate parent — a ferocious Mama Bear when I feel my children are being harmed. I’m also, analytical and a person of process. I understand when things have to go through their proper channels in order to enact change. This experience has warped that entire perception. I took it to the school board. Sarcasm, ignorance, and silence were what I received in return. I took it to the Hampton Branch NAACP. I received politics, posturing, and silence since the chair of the NAACP is also the 1st Vice-Chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia. I emailed EVERY MEMBER of the Virginia House of Delegates and the Virginia State Senate. I’ve spoken to four out of hundreds of representatives. Hampton City Schools has been out of Title IX compliance for years, hence why no Title IX Coordinator ever reached out to my family. The bureaucratic nightmare of enlisting the assistance of the Virginia DOE will tire the most ardent advocate and even from the position of a community activist, it’s a nut that I’m unable to crack. There are times that I’ve contemplated giving up, but then I hear that tiny, raspy voice in my ear saying “Mom, you’re all I got,” and I keep pushing. My daughter needs me to be her statement maker. She needs someone to actually give a damn.
Politicians within the Hampton Roads area were quick to have press conferences to denounce a small organization that prior to them falling over themselves to trounce over this group, were a nothing-burger. They gave this group — who has less than 200 voting members — power by acknowledging their existence to a point where it shifted the results of down-ballot races. Candidates that had hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign reserves lost to candidates that barely broke even. Why? Because the party cared about the wrong things. Terry McAuliffe made a COLLOSSAL gaffe and instead of reframing the remark and showing concern for causes that would have refocused the race on the Democratic party’s commitment to education and the welfare of our children, the same message was repeated — “We are not Trump.” Because of that, they gave the race away and are now sitting on their couches looking deranged.
The daughters of the Commonwealth are crying, not because they’re weak, but because they’re angry, hurt, and disappointed. There’s an expectation that every resident of the Commonwealth of Virginia not only be protected as the Virginia Constitution outlines but by the laws that our country demands. As adults, we have the ability to voice our displeasure when we feel we have been harmed, but what shows our country’s true character is when we use our voice to amplify the causes of our most vulnerable. Children being raped in their schools, a place where their safety should NEVER be at risk, fits that description. Virginia has some work to do. Let’s get to it.
For more information on my daughter and our fight against Hampton City Schools, please visit www.8forCeleste.org