When 16-year-old Johnson High student Emily Polk finally mustered up the courage to speak up about being sexually assaulted by her teammate, she found nobody from the school that would listen. Months after the incident, her mother found out and told officials at the school, but she too faced indifference.
“At one point I thought my daughter was going to kill herself because she was mentally and verbally abused,” said Brandy Pittman, Emily’s mother.
These inactions worry Pittman beyond the damage that sexual assault causes; she believes that passive reactions to sexual assault will allow her daughter to think that it is okay, or that speaking out against an abuser does more harm than good.
At first, Emily thought she might have had the situation under control, that if she spoke to her track coach, or a school police officer, they might protect her. That was not the case. Emily finally told her mother in February, almost three months after the assault. When Pittman decided to take action, her voice went unheard, the situation was unreported, and the only person who suffered the consequences was Emily.
Pittman and her daughter’s situation can be condensed down to multiple stages of neglect; from the starting point of when the incident occurred and the coaches letting students fraternize in hotel rooms, to the point that the school did not report the incidence to the police.
It was in October that the Johnson High School cross country team went to compete in Corpus Christi and, on that night, Emily’s life was redefined. She was staying in a room with another female teammate, who asked to go to their male friend’s room. Emily was hesitant to go because the girls and boys were not supposed to be in the same room. But her friend told her she took some melatonin, a chemical that induces sleepiness, and she would prefer if Emily went along with her.
The two girls went to the room where two boys were staying.
“Everything was fine until they turned off the lights,” Emily said.
They sat on the bed, and Emily’s roommate got under the covers with their teammate. She suspected there was inappropriate touching going on, but both parties were consenting.
Things got worse for Emily when the guy touching her friend grabbed Emily between her thighs. At this point Emily felt uncomfortable and started to leave. As she got up, the boy followed her to the door, pulled her back in, pushed her onto the bed and started touching Emily.
Emily asked him to stop and the other male friend present told him to stop. Finally, he stopped and Emily left.
“I kind of shut down for a while. It was hard to process, I started distancing myself from [the girl I was roomed with].”
When Emily got back to school, the situation progressively got worse. She was shunned by some people when she talked about the assault. Eventually, tensions were so high, she ate lunch in the bathroom and did not want to go back to track. Emily’s social life was significantly changed and she stopped going anywhere except work.
Emily even got threatened by her assailant that if she continued to talk about the situation, he would come to her work and shoot her.
The girl she roomed with was also lashing back at Emily for speaking up about the incident.
Messages on Snapchat showed that those present on that night did not support Emily uncovering the sexual assault.
Her roommate told Emily that “if it was such a big deal, you should’ve done something a week ago when it happened.” When Emily said she was pushed on the bed, the girl’s response was: “you could’ve left.”
Victims of sexual assault are not always taken seriously, often get questioned why they were in this position, what they were wearing, why did they not speak up sooner. Some of these questions followed Emily well after that night.
As Emily faced more hostility, she decided to talk to her coach. Once again, her complaint was not taken seriously. Instead of hearing the teen out, the coach told Emily that the team is about running, not high school drama.
Emily went to the Johnson High police officer, who also did nothing.
Pittman stepped in when she found out, asked the school to get involved, and was told they would report the assault to the Corpus Christi police department in February.
After waiting months to hear back, she called the police department herself. On June 9 the CCPD said the department never received a notice from the school.
Pittman talked to the school’s vice-principal, she sent in complaints and reached out to Superintendent Dr. Eric Wright. She showed them the evidence she procured regarding Emily being threatened, that there were others present who watched it happen and her daughter’s words.
“You can’t argue when you got the evidence,” Pittman said.
All the assailant got was a “slap on the wrist” consisting of community service.
It was Pittman and Emily who got hurt most by all of this and they continued to endure that pain.
The school called Child Protective Services to investigate abuse from Emily’s home, but the investigation showed that this was not the case.
Even with all of these hurdles, Pittman did not want to give up. She reported her daughter’s case to the Hays County Sheriff Department who said they could not do anything because the sexual assault happened out of their jurisdiction. But given the situation, they feel the boy should have been arrested.
Emily wonders, though, would any of this have happened had the coaches actually paid attention and ensured that boys and girls stayed separated? To Emily’s recollection, the coaches were staying downstairs in the hotel, on one side of the wing, while the students stayed upstairs on the opposite side of the wing.
The neglect from authority, beginning with the coaches all the way to the superintendent, has caused Pittman to take stronger action.
Now, she is working with a lawyer to bring justice for her daughter, although she knows that things will never be truly the same.
The Hays CISD issued the following statement:
“ Hays CISD is aware of the allegations; but cannot comment further because it involves a student and investigations by law enforcement agencies and child protective services. Hays CISD places the highest importance on student safety and, as in this case, follows all requirements to, upon learning of serious allegations, immediately report them to appropriate investigatory authorities. Additionally, the district follows all internal policies and procedures that address student safety, support, and well-being.”