Former Student Alleges Elite School Mishandled Rape Allegations
Back in 2017, a student at Waterford School, an elite private school in Utah, a went to officials alleging an off-campus sexual assault. Then, according to the student, “administrators held a meeting with the rest of her class” in which they “shared details of the allegations” before refusing to help the then 17-year-old, girl enforce a protective order against her classmate.
Having received no acceptable response from the school, the girl, Tabitha Bell, who is now a legal adult, filed a lawsuit, saying: “I don’t want anybody else who goes to Waterford to be hurt in the same way I was hurt…” Bell told the media that she has gone public with the story to “help other students who are assaulted” as well as other students with disabilities.
While Waterford school officials refused to comment on the specifics of the allegations, they did release a statement to the media. Head of School Andrew Menke said staffers do not discriminate based on disability, then added:
“The accusations leveled in this suit are inflammatory and not an accurate representation of how the school supported this student through five years of attendance… We take seriously the well-being of each student and have an environment where respect and inclusion make possible the deepest forms of intellectual, emotional, and character growth…”
Rape allegations, especially with accusations of cover-ups, tend to gain traction in the media, and, like this story, have a chance to make national news. Headlines grab attention, inflame emotions, and then the details come out. This is the point in the narrative where people tend to determine who they believe, at least in the court of public opinion. In this case, Bell says she reported the rape, but prosecutors did not press charges because “she failed to say or physically manifest any lack of consent at the time…”
Bell admits this, arguing that she “froze in fear” when “the boy began assaulting” her. Bell added that her disability, which affects her strength and balance, made it harder for her to physicall`y object. And, while the allegations of rape will fill the headlines, it’s likely that the issue of not accommodating her disability will form the core of the legal issue with the school.
In the case, Bell says that while Waterford leadership promised to “accommodate her disability” when she enrolled back in 2014, they failed to adequately do so. The suit alleges that “classmates were asked to carry her” up and down stairs… Bell says these “accommodations” were humiliating. “It was definitely humiliating, having my peers carry me around, looking at me like I’m this sickly student… I try to be as self-sufficient as I can be… All I was asking for was normal, small accommodations.”
Bell is also arguing that one teacher either accused her of “faking” the disability and another asked her to do things that caused her to “fall and get a concussion.” And, Bell alleges that her treatment by school staff and students only worsened after she reported the rape allegation, including a particularly traumatic instance where the boy’s friends “re-enacted the assault” during a school assembly. Bullying continued, and the school responded by offering Bell the chance to graduate early to “make other students more comfortable.”
The facts will be determined in court. However, from a PR perspective, details such as these paint school leadership as tone deaf and insensitive, and their initial statement has a canned feel to it which does them no favors in the court of public opinion.