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Telling Tales Out of School

After her retarded daughter was sexually assaulted, a mother decided to teach DPS a lesson.

Penelope Jones was born with spastic cerebral palsy and is unable to control the right side of her body; she is also deaf in one ear and mentally retarded. When she enrolled in a special-education class at Denver's George Washington High School seven years ago at the age of twenty, she functioned at the level of a first-grader. Although her chances of advancing academically were slim, her mother, Penny Murrell, didn't want her to be isolated at home any longer.

Sending her daughter back to school was a tough decision for Murrell. Four years earlier, while Penelope was riding the bus home from Smiley Middle School on June 29, 1989, two boys had molested her in one of the backseats. Penelope told her mother that she'd screamed the entire time, but the bus driver wouldn't stop. After that, Penelope was terrified to go back to school.

Murrell pressed charges against the boys, and also kept her daughter home for the next several years.

In 1993, Murrell finally decided it was time for Penelope to go back to school. Even though she was now twenty, special education children can be enrolled in DPS programs until the age of 21. Murrell says she took every possible precaution to ensure that Penelope would interact with other students only in a controlled environment. She would drive Penelope to school and escort her to class, and then pick her up at the end of the day in her classroom rather than the parking lot. Murrell told Penelope's teachers that her daughter had been assaulted before, and asked that Penelope be allowed to eat lunch in the classroom instead of going to the cafeteria.

School started out well for Penelope, whose bubbly personality made her instant friends. One boy in particular, fourteen at the time and also retarded, started spending a lot of time with her. He would sharpen her pencils and help her with math. If another student sat down by her first, he'd get angry. Murrell recalls Penelope's teachers saying that her daughter had a boyfriend.

Although Penelope was happy at school, she always looked forward to her mother's appearance at the classroom door. As Murrell walked in, she'd rush up and greet her with an excited "Mommy, Mommy!"

But one day in early November 1993, Penelope kept her head on her desk when Murrell arrived. When Murrell asked what was wrong, Penelope just grabbed her mother's hand and said, "Mommy, let's go." She kept her head down as they walked to the parking lot. Once they were in the car, though, Murrell tried to get her to look up. "Penelope," she said. "Penelope." She reached out her hand and turned Penelope's face toward her. Her daughter had a black eye, a busted lip and dried blood around her nose.

Murrell asked if she had gotten into a fight. "No," Penelope answered curtly. Murrell asked again what had happened. "I had a bloody nose," Penelope replied.

Murrell kept pressing, but Penelope only got more upset with each question. "Was someone picking on you?" Murrell guessed.

"No, Mommy, no!" Penelope insisted. Murrell suspected someone had been bullying her daughter.

On Wednesday, November 24, the day before Thanksgiving break, Penelope again acted despondent after school. She spent most of Thanksgiving in her room. A couple of days later, Murrell saw a side of her daughter that she'd never seen before. Hearing crashing and banging sounds coming from Penelope's bedroom, she rushed in: Penelope was tearing up the room, throwing her toys and clothes around and trying to cut herself with shards of glass from broken picture frames. And she was screaming, "I hate myself, I hate myself! People are bad!"

Her daughter had never gone into a rage like this before, and no amount of soothing words or physical restraint would calm her. "She wouldn't tell me what was wrong," Murrell says.

At a loss, Murrell admitted her daughter to the University of Colorado North Pavilion Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. Two days later, hospital staffers told Murrell they believed Penelope had been sexually assaulted. Murrell talked to her daughter again. This time, Penelope told her that the boy who had been so attentive in class had asked her to go for a walk with him during lunch in early November. He'd taken her to a stairwell near the swimming pool, back by the boys' locker room, then beaten and raped her. The day before Thanksgiving break, he'd asked her to accompany him again. She didn't want to go, but he threatened to hurt her if she didn't. Back by the stairwell, he again sexually assaulted her.

"I just thought a bully in class was picking on her," Murrell says. "I didn't think it was anything that depraved."

Murrell later learned that the teachers had allowed Penelope to go to the cafeteria with the boy, who is referred to only as "John Doe" in court documents. And during the seven years that elapsed between her daughter's assault and the resolution of a suit Murrell filed on her behalf against Denver Public Schools, she learned a lot more about John Doe -- and about the way the school system treats special-needs children.

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