Parents Claim School Officials Ignored Sexual Assaults
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Two families claim, in a federal lawsuit filed Monday against Robertson County schools, that their young sons were sexually assaulted by other children.
It allegedly happened inside East Robertson Elementary School.
And even more disturbing: they claim school officials failed to stop it, failed to report it, even refused to cooperate with investigators.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates confirmed that those allegations even sparked a criminal investigation into the conduct of school officials.
"My child was bullied sexually, and nobody seemed to want to do anything about it," one of the mothers, Taryn Spivey, told NewsChannel 5.
Both families say the assaults have left their young children with deep emotional scars.
"This is when he was still happy," the other mother, Shelly Belcher, said as she looked at a family photo. "This was when he didn't have a care in the world, and nothing was riding on his shoulders."
Now, she sees a child whose life was devastated -- by first grade.
"I wish he was still the same child," Belcher said.
And he's not?
Taryn Spivey saw the same changes in her son. It was the end of first grade, the beginning of second grade.
"It's been something you never think will ever happen," she said. "The emotional distress on my child is enough to tear you down."
"He's not the same child?" we asked.
"No," she said, "he's not the same child."
What happened inside East Robertson Elementary, the lawsuit claims, was an out-of-control rash of boy-on-boy sexual assault -- eventually involving at least two perpetrators and several victims.
For the Belchers, the nightmare began last spring with a mysterious call from an assistant principal.
"She wanted me to question my child and ask if anything inappropriate had happened during school hours -- that's all she would tell me," Shelly said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "What goes through your mind at that point?"
"I went blank," Shelly recalled. "I froze."
The problem was that her son didn't want to talk about it -- and she said that school officials refused to tell her what they suspected.
So, she filed a complaint with the school board.
"Within 20 minutes, they called me and told me they were protecting the rights and privacy of another child -- and they could not help me," she said.
That other child, whose privacy school officials were trying to protect, was the alleged perpetrator.
That's when the Belchers went to the Robertson County Sheriff's Office, which called in the Department of Childrens Services.
A few days later, their young son finally broke down.
"He was heartbroken to have to tell me," Shelly Belcher remembered.
While Shelly herself could not find words to describe the assaults, the lawsuit says the perpetrator "put his hands on [their son's] privates." It also describes repeated "thrusting" against the child's bottom and leg.
"He had asked the other child several times to stop, and the other child continued on a daily basis," Shelly said.
How long had this been going on?
"We believe at least four to six months."
The family said that, according to what they learned from sheriff's investigators, the young perpetrator had been taken to Vanderbilt's psychiatric hospital by a family member. Inside, the boy admitted to sexually assaulting the Belchers' son at school.
But he only knew his victim's first name.
It turns out, Vanderbilt had reported what they believed had happened inside East Robertson to DCS, but the family claims in their lawsuit that school officials refused to help social workers identify their son.
"For four weeks, they refused to turn a name over," Shelly Belcher said. "For four weeks, DCS had my child's first name, but not our last name. That could have been four weeks less that my child went through the things he had to go through."
So is there something going on at that school?
"You know, I wonder myself," Taryn Spivey said.
This fall, her second grader also suddenly broke down, tearfully describing how a second child at East Robertson had been forcing him to engage in simulated sex acts.
For him, it had also begun in first grade.
"He felt that he did something wrong, he felt that he did something to deserve this, that he messed up," Taryn said, fighting back tears.
"That must have been heart-breaking," we noted.
"Yes, sir," she said, "it's been heartbreaking to all of us."
That's when the lawsuit says the Spiveys went to see Robertson County's director of schools.
There, in a conversation that the Belchers recorded, Dan Whitlow seemed to admit he knew there was a problem at East Robertson.
Whitlow: "To be honest, we don't have a lot of trouble with this system-wide. This is a..."
Taryn: "Yeah, we are kinda like 'what the heck,' you know?"
Whitlow: "little group up there at East Robertson. I don't know what brings that up."
At least twice, the family told Whitlow that they just wanted a guarantee that their son would not be sexually abused any more.
His response: there are no guarantees.
Whitlow: "'Guarantee' versus 'we'll do everything we can' is two different things. I understand you want it to stop. I want it to stop too. I will insist that we're doing everything we can to make it stop, but boys are going to be boys."
Boys are going to be boys?
"I don't know how a man can say that, looking at a mother who has just been told that her child has been sexually molested," Taryn said.
The families' attorney, Gary Blackburn, says in the lawsuit -- and NewsChannel 5 has confirmed -- that after investigating the events at East Robertson, sheriff's investigators gave the district attorney's office a case file against certain school officials.
That file included allegations that they may have failed to report the sexual abuse and failed to protect the children.
But an assistant DA declined to prosecute, reportedly telling the Spiveys that the office wanted to "mend fences" with school officials.
"The sheriff's office wanted to pursue a criminal case - I know that for a fact," Blackburn said.
Both families decided to sue the school system, Blackburn added, because "what we want is for Robertson County to take care of their children. It's as simple as that."
As for the victims, their parents pulled them out of the school.
Still, the boys struggle to understand.
"He says to me, 'Mama, I wonder who he's messing around with now at that school. I wonder why I had to leave and he got to stay with all my friends,'" Taryn Spivey said.
Shelly Belcher also worries for the other children.
"I've protected my child," she said, "but there are still almost 600 other kids in that building that are not being protected.
"Their parents have a false sense of security when they drop them off each morning."
NewsChannel 5 reached out to Robertson County school officials, but they said there was nothing they could say about any of the allegations -- or what they are doing to protect other kids -- because of the investigation and the lawsuit.
District Attorney General John Carney said on Thursday that he wasn't aware of the criminal case, but he promised to check into it and call back.
So far, there's been no comment.