Handling of rape may be illegal

A 16-year-old says she was raped in a Burke County High School restroom in September, and school officials, including Superintendent Linda Bailey, might have violated state law by not reporting it to law enforcement.

The Burke County Sheriff's Office didn't find out about the alleged incident until last week, when an investigator received a call from a rape crisis center.

The investigator says he has since determined that after the girl attempted suicide in November, school officials looked into the assault claims but went no further because they decided it was a case of he said-she said.

Georgia's "mandatory reporting" law requires school administrators, doctors and therapists to report possible child abuse to law enforcement or a child welfare agency. Not reporting an incident is a misdemeanor.

Sgt. Dedric Smith said a crisis center worker called him Feb. 23, asking if he had any reports of a girl being assaulted by another student on school grounds in September. He didn't, and he has since begun an investigation into the rape along with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Information he has gathered shows the girl told only close friends immediately afterward, but sometime in November she tried to kill herself by "drinking some type of chemical," Sgt. Smith said.

She confided in her mother, who went to Principal Wayne Hickman. The principal told the superintendent, who told school system attorney James Hyder, the investigator said.

Sgt. Smith said he has determined the school system's campus police department also was not notified.

"Investigating matters of that nature need to be left up to law enforcement," Sgt. Smith said. "Everyone should have been aware of the proper procedure in reporting."

School Board Chairman Johnny Jenkins said Thursday night that board members did not know about the matter until this week. He said they are seeking answers from Ms. Bailey, Mr. Hyder and Mr. Hickman, who spoke to the board during a closed session of a special called meeting Thursday. Mr. Jenkins would not say what was said but did say the issue would be brought up again in a meeting Monday.

Mr. Hickman did not immediately return a message left at his home. Ms. Bailey and Mr. Hyder did not return calls, but sent a statement from school system spokeswoman Amy Nunnally.

"... No 'rape' was reported to Burke County High School officials in November 2006. Since this matter will be the subject of ongoing investigation, no further comment will be made at this time," according to the statement.

Sgt. Smith disputed that no rape was reported, saying school officials were first told that it was a "sexual assault," then a rape. Either way, it should have been reported to police, he said. Not only is it state law, it's also required under a child abuse protocol the school system adopted in 2003.

After the suicide attempt, the girl's mental state continued to deteriorate, and her mother called the crisis center last month out of desperation. Based on two statements he's obtained, the girl's claims seem legitimate.

"Right now, we have no reason not to believe that a violent crime was committed," Sgt. Smith said.

Sheriff Greg Coursey said that after his sergeant and the GBI finish their investigations, they will confer on who was notified and who should have made a report, then decide with District Attorney Danny Craig if misdemeanor warrants should be issued.

"It's not over," Sheriff Coursey said. "It's just beginning."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

THE LAW

Georgia law requires a list of officials "having reasonable cause to believe that a child has been abused" to report the matter to a child welfare agency, law enforcement or the district attorney's office. The list includes:

- School administrators, teachers and guidance counselors

- Doctors, dentists, podiatrists, nurses and hospital personnel

- Psychologists, counselors and therapists

Any person required to report abuse who does not "shall be guilty of a misdemeanor."