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After rape at high school, new policy in works

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 26. 2017 11:27PM
A 14-year-old student was raped in 2015 in an alcove at Manchester High School West. (DAVID LANE/STAFF)

MANCHESTER — School and city officials are working on a policy to address the public disclosure of crime and public-safety incidents at city schools, following the disclosure last week of a little-known 2015 rape at Manchester High School West.

Mayor Ted Gatsas said he met with school Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas and Police Chief Nick Willard on Monday to discuss the release of information in a timely manner.

“The public needs to be made aware of incidents like this when they happen,” Gatsas said.

Last Thursday, Hillsborough County Attorney Dennis Hogan announced that Bryan Wilson, 19, had been sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison for raping a 14-year-old student in a secluded hallway at West. The rape had taken place Sept. 30, 2015. Until Thursday, officials had made no announcements to the public or to parents.

School board members, including Gatsas, were notified the day of the attack in an email.

Meanwhile, David Ryan, the outgoing assistant school superintendent, said on Monday that Gatsas’ first reaction to the news was to ask the race of the perpetrator.

On Monday, Ryan recounted his 2015 conversation with Gatsas about the matter.

“His first question was ‘What color was the boy?’” Ryan said. “I was stunned. I don’t believe I responded, or I responded with ‘I’m not sure.’”

Ryan said he spoke to Gatsas shortly after the West High School principal informed him about the rape allegations.

Ryan’s last day with Manchester schools is Friday. He is taking over as co-superintendent in the five-town district based in nearby Pembroke, after failing to land the top job in Manchester schools.

Gatsas disputed Ryan’s retelling of the conversation. The mayor said he asked Ryan if there was a racial component to the attack, such as different races between the victim and the perpetrator.

He said a racially charged incident was going on at Manchester High School Central at the time, and he was worried about the potential for racial conflict.

“I merely asked the question,” Gatsas said.

“There’s a young lady here that’s going through a very traumatic situation. What about her? This is politically driven, and it’s wrong,” said Gatsas, who is running for reelection.

Last week, Gatsas, Hogan and Willard addressed their reasons for not releasing information sooner.

In part, Gatsas said he wasn’t aware of the severity of the attack and was never told it was a rape.

Ryan said he used the word “rape” when he spoke to Gatsas about the attack.

“I was very explicit on the phone. I think he (Gatsas) forgot about the conversation,” Ryan said.

Former Superintendent Dr. Debra Livingston said “I’m pretty sure I used that word (rape)” when she spoke to Gatsas about the assault. She said she definitely conveyed the serious nature of the assault.

In an interview with the Union Leader, Livingston said she recalled discussing Gatsas’ reaction to the rape with Ryan. Ryan told her that Gatsas asked about the race of the perpetrator, Livingston said.

Gatsas noted that emails that Ryan wrote about the matter used the term “sexual assault.”

“My recall was pretty clear,” Gatsas said, “why didn’t they tell the Board of School Committee it was rape?”

The Manchester School District turned over the emails on Monday in response to a Right-to-Know request filed by the Union Leader.

“This is to inform you that a female student has alleged being the victim of a sexual assault at West High School today. School administration and the Police Department are investigating and as it is an open investigation, details are not being released yet,” reads the Ryan email. The email was sent to all school board members, Gatsas, his top education aide and the school district’s finance officer.

One board member, John Avard, sent a reply asking if the accused assailant was a student or adult. The superintendent’s secretary responded on behalf of Ryan and said the incident involved two students.

New policy

Gatsas said the new policy instructs city departments to notify the public when incidents occur.

If a school is evacuated for a fire-related issue, such as smoke, fire department personnel and school officials will provide information on the incident. If the matter is police-related, police officials will disseminate information to the public in a timely manner.

“Moving forward, the administration will make every effort to keep the public informed to the extent possible allowed under the law,” said Vargas.

During the public comment portion of Monday night’s school board meeting, two residents addressed the topic, both expressing disappointment with how the issue was handled by city officials.

“I look forward to an open and honest account of what happened,” said Ward 2 resident David Scannell.

“One concern I have is with the finger-pointing among the leaders of this city,” said Jim O’Connell. “It leaves the possibility that similar things are happening/have happened and they haven’t chosen yet to share it.”

“Safety is a top priority in all of our schools,” said Vargas.

Investigation demanded

At Large school board member Rich Girard demanded an investigation into how a hallway like the one at Manchester High School West — an area where the rape took place and students were known to smoke cigarettes and marijuana — was allowed to exist in a city school.

“I think this district needs to do that, and I think that administration needs to be investigated,” said Girard. “Someone needs to be held accountable for what happened at that school. From the accounts I’ve read and things I have heard, the hallway was a known problem area.”

“I think this board needs to be given information,” said Ward 1 school board member Sarah Ambrogi. “I don’t think we should have been kept in the dark. I can speculate as to the reasons why, but I think it’s completely inappropriate given the magnitude of this case. This was our school. This was our kids.”

Ryan, who did not attend Monday night’s meeting, said earlier Monday that schools should hold off on information about a crime until a perpetrator is found guilty.

“We have to provide due process prior to putting information out there,” he said. “At the time, we hadn’t proven anything. All we had was an allegation.”;

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