West Lauderdale High School

West Lauderdale High School

After five West Lauderdale High School students were charged with sexual battery last week, officials with the Lauderdale County School District have faced concerned parents while figuring out how to address the issue of sexual violence in their schools.

The district administration allowed the five accused students to return to school Wednesday, after a juvenile court judge ruled earlier this week they could be returned to their parent's custody. The students were arrested by the Lauderdale County Sheriff's Department April 13 following allegations they were involved in the off-campus sexual battery of a classmate in March. Because the students are all juveniles, their names were not made public. Their cases are being handled by the Lauderdale County Youth Court. 

"We're taking it a day at a time," Lauderdale County Schools Superintendent Randy Hodges said Thursday. "We're not above the law... where we would make a mistake is if we punished or accused a student of doing something they didn't do."

Hodges said Thursday charges had been dismissed against one of the students, a baseball player. Hodges didn't say if a judge dismissed the charges or if the person pressing charges dropped them.

Hodges does have the power to suspend the students or place them in an alternative school, but he said he wouldn't doe either without proof.

"We have to trust the juvenile system to do what's right (legally)," Hodges said. "We're at their mercy."

Still, Hodges said he thought it would take some time for resolution.

"I think it's going to be a long, drawn-out thing," Hodges said. "I may need answers today... but I know that's not going to happen."

Juvenile Court Judge Veldore "Vel" Young said she was not overseeing the case. Juvenile Court Judge Frank Coleman declined an interview to explain sentencing for youth sex offenders or how long the case would proceed.

According to Mississippi Code, however, sentencing, including imprisonment, fines or other punishments, will be determined by the court. There are no minimum sentences or fines for sex offenders between these ages. It's unclear whether the accused students, if found guilty, would have court-mandated sex offender therapy included in their sentencing. 

Hodges said Thursday the victim had voluntarily chosen to pursue her education from home and had sought counseling elsewhere. 

"I'd rather her be on campus, but she wanted to be off-campus and so I'm supporting her," Hodges said. "I do think that it's a shame. I want her to have a normal day (at school) but we can't have a normal day."

When asked, he said Weems Community Mental Health Center had counselors available to West Lauderdale High School students who might be upset or confused. 

According to Lee Lee Marlow, the director of Children and Youth Services with Weems, the agency has one full-time therapist at the school. Parents must provide consent for children to receive therapy services but students can seek help from Weems counselors. 

Cheryl Thomas, the director of curriculum and professional development with Lauderdale County Schools, said the district is "looking into what the need is for (specialized sexual assault prevention courses) based on what we've already had."

Thomas asked schools to send in what programs they have related to bullying as part of her research for a program so she, and others, could evaluate future programs that might address the issue. Thomas didn't ask schools if they had programs that addressed sexual assault and didn't know if any schools did. 

When it comes to sex education, West Lauderdale teaches abstinence. Thomas said the program, called "Choosing the Best Path," was taught in 7th grade and didn't discuss consent but did teach students "to say no, (be) assertive and ways to get out of situations that could lead to sex."

Thomas stressed that students are given lessons on good decision-making through programs such as I Got You: Healthy Life Choices for Teens or Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD). Students also learn about intervening as active bystanders in defense of bully victims to counter peer pressure. 

The Wesley House Community Center houses the East Mississippi Sexual Assault Crisis Center. Two counselors at the center finished training in Safe Dates, a program for high school and middle school students that focuses on dating violence, in late March.

Safe Dates covers a variety of topics related to dating violence, including how victims of dating violence feel and deal with their emotions, why people abuse, how to help friends who are victims of dating violence, how to prevent dating sexual abuse and more. 

"Teachers and the administration pull sessions that they would like us to focus on," said Deidra Stewart, a therapist and family advocate at Wesley House. Stewart said the program could take ten weeks if districts wished to cover every topic or be as short as a one-day session. 

Stewart said Wesley House hoped to reach out to every local school, including West Lauderdale, and offer this program in the fall, since students are currently preparing for testing. 

Brandy Rea, the clinical director of the East Mississippi Sexual Assault Crisis Center, part of the Wesley House, recommended that victims of sexual assault seek trauma-focused service, which addresses issues such as PTSD, rather than general counseling, which helps patients with phase-of-life issues.

"Any victim of sexual assault should seek a trauma-focused service," Rea said. "It's more focused on people who have experienced a traumatic event."

The Wesley House offers free counseling to any sexual assault victim, no matter what age.

Lauderdale County Chief Deputy Ward Calhoun said that anyone with direct information about the incident, and not hearsay or rumors, should contact the sheriff's department.  

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