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Officials speak out on silence following rape at West High

By MARK HAYWARD
New Hampshire Union Leader

June 23. 2017 8:50PM
A 2015 rape at West High School in Manchester was not officially disclosed until Thursday, when Hillsborough County Attorney Dennis Hogan issued a press release about the 10- to 20-year sentence received by the rapist, then-West High student Bryan Wilson. 

MANCHESTER — The police chief. The mayor. The school superintendent. The county prosecutor.

All acknowledged this week that parents and the public deserve to know when serious crimes take place in city schools. But each said it wasn’t their job to do so.

The officials spoke after news emerged of the 2015 rape of a 14-year-old student in a remote hallway at Manchester High School West.

The rape was not officially disclosed until Thursday, when Hillsborough County Attorney Dennis Hogan issued a press release about the 10- to 20-year sentence received by the rapist, then-West High student Bryan Wilson.

The rape occurred at one of the city’s two magnet high schools, schools which offer special programs that draw students from across the city and tuition towns.

West offers two magnet programs — the STEAM program, which emphasizes Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics — and Navy Junior ROTC.

In an interview on Thursday, Mayor Ted Gatsas said “we were not told a rape took place at West.” But after Police Chief Nick Willard told a reporter that he informed Gatsas at least twice, Gatsas said the discussion revolved around locking the hallway doors after an unspecified “incident.”

“I didn’t know the severity of it,” Gatsas said.

Here’s a rundown of comments from officials:

Police Chief Nick Willard

Willard said police arrested Wilson, who was 17 at the time, the day of the rape and obtained a confession.

He said Manchester police never release information about juvenile-on-juvenile crime.

“We do not release any juvenile incidents,” consistent with state law, he said.

(According to Gregory Sullivan, counsel for the Union Leader and a First Amendment expert, nothing in state law prevents police departments from reporting a crime committed by a juvenile, as long as police don’t identify the juvenile.)

Willard said there were other ways for the information to get out. The school administration could do so. And prosecutors could have safely released information about Wilson and the crime once a judge ruled he could be tried as an adult, Willard said.

County Attorney Dennis Hogan

Hogan said his office waits until the end of a trial or sentencing hearing to issue a press release, and then only when they win a case. He does so to make people aware that criminals are held accountable, he said.

He didn’t release information about Wilson’s certification as an adult because it was not the end of a trial.

What about its news value?

“We don’t know what you’ll find interesting,” Hogan told a reporter.

A former Nashua school board member, Hogan said schools should let parents know about serious crimes on school grounds, but they have to keep a student’s right to privacy in mind.

“How do you do that without violating the kid’s right to be a kid?” Hogan said.

Mayor Ted Gatsas

“I would think that if a serious crime has taken place on school grounds and someone is arrested, it should be public, maybe not with names,” said Gatsas, whose job as mayor includes being school board chairman.

Gatsas said such a report should be the responsibility of the school administration. “I’m not so sure it should come out of the mayor’s office,” he said.

He said Assistant Superintendent David Ryan had sent an email about the West High School incident to the school board.

Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas

Vargas started as school superintendent last September, about a year after the rape took place. On Thursday, Vargas spoke to his predecessor, Dr. Debra Livingston, about the rape, he said. The school district addressed it appropriately and effectively, Vargas said.

He said the school district has an obligation to be transparent about schools, noting that parents entrust their children with school officials.

“Of course you have that obligation, but it’s a fine line you have to walk,” Vargas said. If you tell parents about a crime at a school, they will want to know details, he said.

But that could hamper a police investigation, he said.

“You don’t want to interfere with a criminal investigation,” he said. When police become involved, he said, school officials work closely with them.

“I like to be as transparent as possible, as allowed by law,” Vargas said.

mhayward@unionleader.com


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