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School Haze

After two assaults at Stedman Elementary School, parents are looking for answers.

he ten-year-old girl came home from school one day and told her parents that a boy was teasing her. He was pulling her ponytail and calling her names. It was her first year at Stedman Elementary School; in fact, it was her first year at any public school. Until the fourth grade, she had been home-schooled, and she wasn't used to being around boys her age.

The teasing was harmless.

Just a little horseplay.

But soon the girl's stories started to concern her parents. Their daughter was saying that the boy was pushing her, calling her sexually explicit names, hitting her in the stomach, touching her in inappropriate ways, looking up her dress and trying to pull down her underwear.

Over the next six months, Jamie and Amy Richardson visited the school, at 2940 Dexter Street, twenty times to talk to principal Rachel Starks and several teachers about keeping their daughter safe. Each time, they were assured that the school was handling it. But every day their daughter came home with another story.

"The principal told me on two occasions that these assaults would never happen again," recalls Amy Richardson. "I said we should talk to the boy's parents, but the principal told me that wasn't necessary. She said the boy's grandmother, who has custody of him, doesn't need to be bothered with this."

On April 7, 1998, the situation finally exploded. The girl was standing on the playground during gym class when the boy came rushing at her, his head bowed down like a bull's. He charged into her and she fell back on the blacktop. "The suspect then placed his foot in the victim's stomach, grabbed her by the arms, and flipped her over onto her back, landing [her] on the ground," read a police report filed by an officer after Jamie Richardson rushed to the school and called the cops.

"When we got there, she was hysterical and she said her head hurt and that she was dizzy. The principal and teacher were telling her she's all right," Amy Richardson says. "The principal told me that my daughter probably started it, and she refused to call an ambulance or the boy's grandmother."

So the Richardsons called an ambulance instead, and their daughter left school that day on a stretcher; according to a St. Joseph Hospital emergency-room report, she had suffered a concussion and soft-tissue damage to her back.

After the ambulance and the cops took off, Jamie Richardson says, Starks told him that he had overreacted. On the school's accident report, the principal characterized the incident as "horseplay."

The next day, the Richardsons filed a restraining order against the boy. The judge who authorized it told them that as soon as the school received the order, the boy would be expelled. But when Amy Richardson handed the restraining order to Starks, she says the principal's response was, "What do you want me to do with this?"

Richardson went home and called Ricardo Concha, Denver Public School District's executive director for elementary education, who had the boy transferred to another school.

But the Richardsons were still not satisfied with the way things were handled. "I'm not upset with the boy; he has a pathetic home life, and he can't help that," Amy Richardson says. "But [school administrators] knew about it, and they did nothing to keep my daughter safe."

Deborah Wilson, who is a member of Stedman's Parent Teacher Association, says her son witnessed the attack and that "it was definitely not horseplay." Wilson is so distressed over this incident and some other things that have gone on at Stedman that she's making sure her kids go to school elsewhere. Her third-grade daughter will attend a different elementary school this fall, and her son is now in middle school.

Wilson says parents have had problems with Starks ever since she became Stedman's principal in 1994. Wilson's complaint is that Starks kept her kids from advancing in the school's gifted-and-talented program. "We have no idea why she does the things she does," Wilson says. "We've been trying to figure that out."

After their daughter was hurt, the Richardsons started talking to other parents and learned that they weren't the only ones who were upset with the way the school was treating them and their children.

In May 1998, several parents -- carefully watched by security guards -- picketed outside the school, demanding Starks's removal. A few weeks later, on June 4, 1998, they asked the Denver Board of Education to remove the principal.

"What I have seen happen to children at Stedman Elementary is so horrible that I simply would not have believed it if I had not lived out this trauma myself," Cynthia Wells told the board during that meeting. Wells's twelve-year-old daughter was raped at the school by a fellow student on May 20, 1996. "I'm not here to tell you the details of her rape; I'm here to tell you how the school made my daughter into a criminal instead of the victim."

Wells said Starks never called her or the police to report the rape. Instead, her daughter was "sent home with instructions not to tell," Wells told the board. "Her father and I were told by the principal that she was lying." Wells also said Starks insisted that there was no medical proof of the rape; that the girl was assaulted by someone other than the student she accused; and that since the boy said he didn't do it, then he didn't do it.

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