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February 24, 2001

County officials said Friday that an anonymous e-mail alleging gang rape at the Washington State School for the Deaf is erroneous, but the e-mail's sensational details have angered some parents, who still aren't certain what happened.

The anonymous e-mail claimed that on Feb. 19, two high-school boys and three middle-school boys took an elementary girl into one of the school's residential units.

"The young girl was then, at the prodding of the high-school boys, raped multiple times by the middle-school boys for the next hour," the e-mail said.

Keven Grant, former president of the parent-staff organization at the school, forwarded the anonymous e-mail to legislators, parents and the media.

Although there was an incident involving sexual activity at the school -- and two teen-agers were arrested -- no gang rape occurred, said Bob Kanekoa, director of the Clark County Child Abuse Intervention Center.

The school, at 611 Grand Blvd., has about 140 deaf and hard-of-hearing students, in all grades, from throughout Washington.

Nearly three-fourths of the students live on campus from Sunday evening to Friday afternoon while school is in session. The school has three "cottages" or dormitories; boys and girls live separately.

Other students go home when classes are done in the afternoon.

Kanekoa, whose detectives are investigating the incident, said this is what is believed to have occurred:

About 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 12, a 12-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy engaged in sexual contact in a common area of the school.

When Vancouver police investigated, there was an initial allegation that four boys had threatened or coerced the boy and girl to have sex.

As a result, Vancouver police Feb. 13 arrested a 17-year-old boy and an 18-year-old man, both students at the school, who were suspected of coercing the younger students.

The two teens were arrested on suspicion of second-degree rape -- based on the coercion allegation -- although there was no accusation that they engaged in sexual activity with the girl.

On Feb. 14, after detectives from the Child Abuse Intervention Center investigated, the suspects were released and no charges were filed, although they could be later.

"We just didn't have enough to hold those kids," Kanekoa said. "We have asked that they be released pending further investigation. We're not saying they're not guilty, and we're not saying they are guilty."

If further investigation reveals the 17-year-old and 18-year-old threatened or coerced the younger students, they might be arrested -- not for rape but possibly for indecent liberties, also a felony charge.

Detectives also are investigating the sexual activity believed to have occurred between the boy and girl, Kanekoa said. One difficulty, he said, is the state law that defines various categories of rape refers to cases with larger age differences.

"It gets complex because of the ages of the girl and boy," Kanekoa said. "At 12 and 13 it doesn't fall into any of the rape categories."

One student at the School for the Deaf, who declined to identify himself, said Friday he knew some of the students involved.

"Really, it's not rape," he said through a written communication. "It's only a love between the girlfriend and boyfriend, but they will always call it rape."

He added that one of the older boys accused of taunting the younger students didn't force them to have sex -- "He just caught them, and he teased them."

Kanekoa, who received several phone calls Friday after the e-mail was circulated, said there is no indication that more than one person had sex with the girl.

"We're not even close to getting into a gang-rape situation," Kanekoa said. "For people to send out an e-mail like that, I think, is really irresponsible. Our job here at the Child Abuse Intervention Center is tough enough without having something like that sent out anonymously, without that person having the guts to step forward and talk to us."

Vancouver police, who initially investigated the case, did not report it to news reporters, even though similar problems at the school in the past have generated intense public interest and concern.

The department typically does not allow reporters access to rape reports and offers little help when reporters inquire about a report.

This isn't the first rape claim to surface at the school.

In 1999, several charges of rape were reported; at least two were dismissed.

Following those reports, parents met with Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Felida, to air concerns that students at the school are vulnerable to sexual predators, and security is inadequate.

Patricia Bunnell, who received the e-mail and is the parent of a former student at the school, wrote to legislators Friday asking for more protection for children who are deaf and hard of hearing.

"I find it appalling that nothing has changed at WSD to really improve the situation there for the children," she wrote. "The taxpayers' dollars were wasted on the huge fence that now appears to lock innocent victims in, with no way to escape. The problem of rape at WSD really is inside the fence, by peers."

Despo Varkados, the school's public relations coordinator, said the school has received many calls from parents pleased with the school's handling of the incident.

Varkados said Superintendent Len Aron won't comment because the situation still is under investigation.

The school sent home a letter to parents and guardians about what Aron described as an "unfortunate incident that allegedly occurred …" when some students "… engaged in inappropriate sexual activity on the campus of WSD."

Aron states in the letter that school officials are cooperating fully with the police and that the Child Abuse Intervention Center was contacted immediately.

"Because safety for all students is an absolute priority for our school and residential program, WSD will investigate this situation and re-examine its current safety practices to see what steps can be taken to further improve our efforts," Aron wrote. "We are doing everything possible to provide support and assistance to the victims in this case and endorse the legal remedies available to protect our students."

Pat Simons, the school's social worker, said that over the summer, the staff received training on how to identify and report inappropriate behavior among students. Representatives from Child Protective Services and experts on child abuse helped in the training session.

Since the incident, Simons, who also works for CPS, said counselors and other staffers have talked with all the students at the school.

"Any time a child is a victim, you have to be right there with that child," she said. "We also work with the alleged perpetrators to make sure this doesn't ever happen again."

The school, unlike most public schools, is under the direct control of the governor's office.

© 2001 by The Columbian Publishing Co. Po. By JOHN BRANTON and MHARI DOYLE, Columbian staff writers

Columbian staff writer Tom Vogt contributed to this story.


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