Harassing call leads to daily nightmare, St. Francis student says

Published: Tuesday, December 10, 2013 at 3:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 11, 2013 at 11:58 a.m.

An unfamiliar phone number had called Christina Rodriguez twice while she was napping, so when her phone rang a third time on the evening of Oct. 2, she picked up the call.

What she heard on the other end, she says, has turned her life into a nightmare.

It wasn't a prank, Christina, 17, said of the boys who she alleged sexually harassed and threatened her over the phone that night.

"They wanted to make me feel horrible, and they wanted to scare me," she said.

Three male students at St. Francis Catholic High School, where Christina is also a student, were found to be the culprits after a classmate looked up the phone number.

They were suspended from school and then returned to St. Francis, where they're in nearly all of Christina's classes.

The anxiety of seeing her harassers daily prompted Christina and her family to ask the school to go beyond its stated discipline for such offenses and expel the boys, but school officials say the punishment has been carried out and that the incident is over.

"I was extremely depressed because I thought there was nothing that I could do about it," Christina said.

* * *

St. Francis officials did not deny that Christina was harassed. In fact, she said, people at the school at 4100 NW 115th St. were helpful, at least at first.

Christina reported the phone call to the Alachua County Sheriff's Office the night it happened.

A deputy didn't record the incident as a criminal assault, which Florida statutes describe as an unlawful threat to do harm coupled with the immediate ability to carry it out.

However, the deputy gave Christina a victim's rights brochure and told her to create a transcript of everything she heard during the phone call, as a record if the harassment continued.

She brought the transcript to school the next morning and presented it to the principal.

St. Francis Principal Ernest Herrington wrote in an email to The Sun that he couldn't discuss the action taken against the boys, but that the incident "has been thoroughly reviewed, and disciplinary action and consequences were given appropriately to everyone involved."

He also wrote that all of the students involved have received counseling. Christina says the school never explicitly offered her counseling.

Repeated phone calls from The Sun seeking comment from Herrington regarding specifics about the incident were not returned.

The incident was investigated as sexual harassment because of the nature of the phone call: During the call, a boy's voice accused Christina of sex acts with other classmates, asked her questions about private areas of her body, said that he was going to have sex with her and make her perform oral sex, she said.

Later, school officials discovered three boys were involved with the phone call.

According to the school's 2013-2014 Student-Parent Handbook, sexual harassment is a Level II, or intermediate, offense in the same category as possession of cigarettes and skipping detention.

The outline of school offenses range from Level I/Minor (dress code violation, skipping class, gambling, use of obscene language) to Level IV/Flagrant (bomb threat, possession of weapons or drugs, sexual activity at school events).

According to the handbook, a Level II offense merits punishments such as suspension and/or a mandatory parent conference.

Since the incident took place outside of school hours and off campus, St. Francis school officials were not actually required to investigate, said Kathleen Bagg, director of communications for the Diocese of St. Augustine. She said the school officials got involved "because they wanted to."

Although Bagg declined to explain the process St. Francis uses to investigate sexual harassment, "it is a very detailed process, (and) they do not leave any stones unturned," she said. "That's one of the bedrocks of Catholic education."

Craig Wood, a professor in the University of Florida's College of Education, said a school has a legal obligation to investigate if a student is being harassed or bullied at school. But off campus, it depends.

"The question is," he said, "does it have ramifications inside the school?"

If there's evidence that the student is in danger or has already been harmed, Wood said, then the school typically hands the case over to Child Protective Services or local authorities.

If there's nothing to substantiate a criminal charge, the school likely will exercise its own punishment system, such as suspension.

In that case, though, a parent can ask the school why it didn't investigate the incident further.

Christina said St. Francis officials have stopped returning her family's phone calls and emails.

* * *

After Christina took the transcript to school officials, she said the dean assured her the school takes allegations of sexual harassment very seriously and that she was safe on campus.

At first, Christina said, she still didn't know who had called her, and school officials were sure it wasn't a student, she said.

But during lunch that day, she had her friends search their cellphone contacts. The number from which the call came turned up in one of her friend's phone. It belonged to a male classmate.

"It was the most terrifying thing that had ever happened," Christina said. "I had probably passed that person in the hall that morning."

She immediately went to the principal to report it and was told he would handle it, she said.

Three boys were called into the dean's office, including the one whose phone was used to call Christina. All three were implicated and suspended for varying lengths of time, up to a week.

Christina was told to go back to class — the issue was over.

But it wasn't over for Christina. She wanted to know why the boys had done this to her. She wanted to hear an apology. She requested a meeting with them but was told by school officials it would not be allowed.

Four days after the boys were suspended, Christina turned around in her second-period class and saw one of them sitting in the row behind her, barely 3 feet away.

All the panic and fear she felt after the initial phone call came back, and she excused herself from class and went, crying, to the guidance counselor's office, she said.

Christina said she told school officials she was upset because she wasn't told the boys would be returning to the school, or which of the boys was involved with the phone call and to what extent.

She said the principal and dean told her it wasn't her business to know.

Christina said Herrington, the principal, also told her to delete the partial recording she had taken of the phone call.

During another discussion, school officials told her that the boys' statements that they would have sex with Christina and make her perform oral sex on them didn't amount to a rape threat.

Christina's mother contacted the Diocese of St. Augustine, and a representative met with the family about a month after the phone call.

Christina said the diocese representative expressed disappointment with the way the incident was handled and told her she could have a face-to-face meeting with the boys in a private room with an adult present. She said she was glad she finally would get some answers.

Two weeks later, a guidance counselor told Christina the boys had refused to meet with her.

St. Francis and diocese officials have declined to comment on any part of the process, including why they chose to investigate an off-campus complaint in the first place and why Christina was not allowed to meet with the boys.

By this time, Christina, an honor roll student who was involved in Student Government and a variety of other extracurricular activities, was falling behind in her classes.

She was so terrified of seeing her harassers at school that she spent her mornings throwing up from anxiety.

When she was told she couldn't have the meeting she was promised, "That big sigh of relief I had two weeks prior to this … was completely crushed."

* * *

In the weeks since the phone call, Christina says she and her family have approached St. Francis officials without success.

Christina's mother, Millie Rodriguez, said she called for the expulsion of the boys who were responsible, but school officials told her again that the punishment called for had been carried out.

St. Francis Catholic High School enrolls about 250 students a year. The size of the school makes it impossible for Christina to avoid the boys, she said. They're in five of her seven classes, plus lunch.

Recently, Christina says she learned the boys would get their senior privileges back.

That means they'll be able to go to prom, Grad Bash and graduation — all of the events that are supposed to be carefree and memorable for a high school senior.

And still, Christina says she has yet to receive a full apology from the boys.

At St. Francis, prompt letters of apology are required for lesser offenses, such as violating the school computer-use policy.

When she finally received the promised apology letters, about a month after the incident, Christina said they were scrawled on pieces of paper and lacking acceptance of responsibility.

I'm sorry for what happened to you, she said one of them read.

The irony of this incident happening in a faith-based environment is not lost on Christina.

The home page of St. Francis' website has a link to the Diocese of St. Augustine's statement on sexual abuse in the church.

"Every person has the right to be treated with the dignity befitting a child of God," it reads. "Every person has the right to have appropriate boundaries respected."

Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or erin.jester@gainesville.com.

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