AURORA | Contradicting Cherry Creek schools Superintendent Harry Bull after days of controversy over publicly reported and unreported student sex assaults committed by school staffers, a state expert on the issue and a prominent state lawmaker said schools should notify the community as soon as an arrest is made in such cases.
“These incidents should be focused on with a bright spotlight to ensure ourselves there are no more victims, that we know what to watch for in other kids, and to learn how to create awareness around issues and make sure victims understand it’s not their fault, that these are predators,” said Margaret Ochoa, a child sexual abuse prevention specialist with the Colorado School Safety Resource Center in the state’s Department of Safety. Ochoa said she could not speak to the Grandview case, only to cases like it as they arise in school districts across the state.
That path was the opposite approach taken by Bull at one school. Last week, the superintendent sent a letter to parents and students at Grandview High School explaining why the school district went public with one recent school-related sex assault at Prairie Middle School but not a different incident that occurred in May at Grandview High School. Bull said he chose not to make the Grandview sex-assault public in order to protect a student victim from further trauma that could come from likely publicity over the case.
After the Aurora Police Department and Cherry Creek announced the arrest of Prairie Middle School teacher Brian Vasquez on Aug. 22, alleging multiple counts of sexual assault on students, the previous and undisclosed arrest of Grandview security guard Broderick Jerrod Lundie came to light. Lundie has since been charged with assaulting one student at Grandview.
Ochoa said victims of assault often feel ashamed about the incident and many think something they did might have brought about their abuse. Many victims believe they could have and should have done something more to stop it. While not talking about Cherry Creek’s handling of the Lundie case specifically, Ochoa said not publicly talking about such incidents perpetuate the feeling of shame in victims.
“There’s really no way to avoid (victims feeling that shame). But if we as a society embrace secrecy, that lack of transparency isn’t going to protect our students. There’s no way adults can offend against children without secrecy,” Ochoa said.
EDITORIAL: DO TELL — Cherry Creek schools was wrong not to tell parents, public about sexually assaulted student
Bull explains Cherry Creek’s different responses
After news of Lundie’s court case became public last week, questions arose as to why Grandview students, staff and parents weren’t notified of the incident after his arrest. After three days of media reports and questions from the community, Bull addressed the issue in a letter sent last Friday to Grandview students, faculty and parents.
He said he wrote the letter because he wanted to “detail our reasoning in regards to both cases, and directly address concerns from the Grandview community about the timeliness and transparency of our responses.”
Bull, a veteran Cherry Creek administrator and superintendent, said his decision in each case was shaped by the response of the Aurora Police Department and wanting to protect the safety, mental health and identity of the victims. In the case of Lundie, Aurora police concluded there was only one victim, and they didn’t issue a press release after the arrest. Bull pointed to that lack of action by police as having influenced his decision not to have Cherry Creek issue its own statement.
“(The victim) is an individual who faced and continues to face the very real prospect of being re-victimized under the scrutiny of a full-blown media inquiry,” Bull said in the statement. “Mr. Lundie had been arrested and subsequently resigned; he was no longer an employee and he was absent from the school setting. There was no further risk to other students at the school.”
Aurora police spokeswoman Sgt. Diana Cooley said police don’t always issue a press release in sexual assault investigations like these, adding that their motivation is the investigation, not school community policy. In the Vasquez case at Prairie, she said police announced the investigation via a press conference and media release because they worried there could be other victims who had yet to come forward.
Cooley said that by the time Lundie was arrested, investigators did not believe there were other potential victims who had not come forward, so they did not go public to seek out information.
She said the department has a good working relationship with Cherry Creek schools, but they did not, and never would, tell the district whether they should or should not discuss a case like this one beyond asking district officials not to do anything that could identify victims or jeopardize an ongoing investigation.
Ochoa said the identity of victims should always be protected.But speaking generally, public disclosure when a school employee has been arrested for an assault on a child is critical for several reasons, including empowering any victims who hadn’t come forward to speak to officials.
Ochoa also said that when parents are informed, they won’t gloss over any warning signs of possible abuse, whether physical or emotional, in their own children.
“The information, in respect to the assault and the facts about it, needs to be disclosed to the community to protect the community, especially if there are other victims. Disclosing the incident can empower other victims to come forward,” Ochoa said. “It kind of cuts both ways. Sometimes victims are reluctant to disclose because of the publicity that would ensue. But it can also be very empowering depending on the situation.”
Two incidents; two responses
Police and school officials announced the arrest of Vasquez, a teacher at Prairie Middle School on Aug. 22 at a live-streamed press conference. Police say Vasquez may have sexually assaulted “multiple” victims at that school, and they appealed to the community for information.
The arrest affidavit in the Vasquez case remains sealed, but charging documents list 31 charges against the veteran teacher, including sexual assault on a child, sexual exploitation of a child and unlawful contact. Prosecutors have said the charges stem from five victims and charging documents say some were younger than 18 at the time of the assaults and others were younger than 13.
In the Grandview case, Lundie, 29, has since been charged with sexual assault and exploitation. According to Lundie’s arrest affidavit, Lundie began a conversation with a female student using Instagram. The conversation moved onto text messages where it became romantic in nature. Lundie then sent pictures and videos of his genitals to the student and asked the girl to send him nude pictures of herself, police reported. The girl returned partially nude photos. Lundie then met the girl outside of the school and the two performed oral sex on each other in a car, according to police investigators.
Investigators also say they spoke to at least one other Grandview student who had inappropriate contact with Lundie and possibly others. At least one female student said she was uncomfortable with Lundie’s communications with her.
Bull, in a roundabout way, addressed rumors on social media that the lack of an announcement about the arrest of Lundie was due to the fact that he is the son of Overland High School Principal Leon Lundie.
Abbe Smith, spokeswoman for Cherry Creek Schools District, said Aurora police handled the investigation and Leon Lundie was not involved in any decision about whether to announce the arrest of his son.
No rule to disclose
Colorado school districts aren’t required by state law to notify parents when a teacher or administrator has been arrested for having sexually assaulted a student, or if staffers are arrested for any reason at all.
In 2011, the Colorado State Board of Education passed a rule that required school districts to notify parents when teachers were arrested for a number of crimes, including assault, DUIs or any felony, but the rule, introduced by then-board chairman Bob Schaffer, a former Colorado congressman, suffered a fiery fallout a short time later.
After passage with unanimous support, the Colorado Education Association, Colorado’s largest teachers union, filed a lawsuit, claiming, among a list of other grievances, the board had no authority to make the rule.
Before the judge in the case could make a ruling, a state legislative committee killed the rule on a party line vote with Democrats opposing the measure.
“Here’s the thing: There’s this phantom fear that somehow, somebody who is arrested is going to be embarrassed if the public knows about the arrest before the trial,” Schaffer said, adding that the argument is a red herring because all arrests are already public information.
“By notifying parents, the district is not introducing new information,” he said.
But to get a rule or law passed, Schaffer believes it’s going to take a political swing in the legislature.
“The majority of Colorado state legislators are in office due in part to their being endorsed by the Colorado Education Association,” Schaffer said. “That union has the most influence on the state capitol.”
The CEA declined to comment on the current Cherry Creek case.
“I don’t intend to be partisan, but sometimes you have to point out the partisanship,” Schaffer said.
Schaffer’s rule was wide-reaching, having included any felonies and several crimes outside of sexual assault. CEA in the lawsuit said the rule was sporadic.
But specifically in the case of sex assaults, such as the ones in Cherry Creek, Aurora State Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, said she wouldn’t be surprised if the issue was resurrected at the Capitol in the next legislative session, and she falls on the side of notifying parents.
“I think parents have a right to know,” Fields said. “I think we need a standard approach across the state when it comes to communicating issues (to parents).”
Fields said school districts are good at notifying parents, particularly when it comes to weather and threats around a school campus, so it seems the technology and systems are already in place to notify parents.
“I don’t want to do it at the expense of violating somebody’s identity,” Fields said, adding that a notification in the case of an arrest due to sexual assault would boost confidence in school districts.
Cherry Creek schools board President Randy Perlis was noncommital about how the district handled the situation. He said student safety is always the top priority of the board when it comes to matters of reporting sexual assault.
“In the case of an educator being arrested, district practice is to work closely with police and use the facts of the case and potential risk to students in creating an appropriate response plan,” Perlis said in a statement. “It is difficult to imagine a one-size-fits-all policy to guide decision-making in these situations. Our interest is always in protecting the students, including those who have been victimized.
“As always, we are open to reviewing our protocols around communication to families in these instances toward the goal of ensuring student safety.”
Kristine Ritter, president of the Cherry Creek Schools’ Parents Council, declined to comment on either the Vasquez or Lundie case or on whether parents should be notified about the arrest of school employees on suspicion of abuse.
Cherry Creek schools officials were unclear whether there have been similar incidents at district schools not made public. The Aurora Sentinel has filed open records requests with the school district and with the Colorado Department of Education for information on any school-related sex assaults in the district in the past three years.
Bull said in the letter to Grandview staff, students and parents he could not foresee a blanket policy for all situations. There isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” response to criminal acts like the ones allegedly perpetrated by Lundie and Vasquez, but officials appeared to leave open the door for scrutiny and change.
“My compass in each of these incidents has been protecting our students in every possible way,” Bull said in the letter. “As always, we as a district will review our practices and bring forward our learnings from both of these situations. We will critique our actions and responses in an effort to improve, especially when it comes to ensuring the safety of our students.”
To learn more, visit the U.S. Department of Justice’s website on warning signs for children and teens here.
Aurora Sentinel repoters Brandon JohaJohansson and Kara Mason contributed to this story