By DeWayne Wickham
The early reports of a horrific crime are often so sensationalized that the truth is slow to emerge. Sometimes it takes years before fact is separated from fiction.
But in the case of the 15-year-old girl at California's Richmond High School who allegedly was gang raped on campus late last month, this much is certain: What happened gives new meaning to the words "failed school."
Those words used to describe a school whose students did poorly on standardized tests, had high absenteeism and low graduates rates. But the conditions at Richmond High that created the environment in which the girl was savagely attacked expand the definition of a "failing school."
The first priority of any public school should be the safety of its students. Sure, education is their primary purpose, but it's hard for serious learning to take place in a school where violence, or the fear of violence, goes unchecked.
The attack happened in a corner of the school's sprawling campus as a homecoming dance took place nearby. Police have arrested six of the 10 young men they think might have taken part in the sexual assault. They also are trying to track down as many as 20 others believed to have watched the rape. Some onlookers, cops said, used their cellphones to take pictures of the attack.
"I think we have become a country of spectators. The violence many young people see just doesn't reach the area of their humanness that says there is a real person being treated that way," Saundrea Young, the co-founder and former clinical director of Loved Ones of Homicide Victims, a Los Angeles group that offers counseling to relatives of murder victims, told me.
There were four police officers at the homecoming dance, which attracted about 400 students. The school's principal, Julio Franco, told the Contra Costa Times that he believed the police officers would "do the perimeter checks" of the campus. But Richmond's police chief, Chris Magnus, said that wasn't the officers' job. They were there to provide security inside the gym, where the dance took place, and a nearby parking lot. It was the school district's responsibility to make sure other parts of the campus were safe, he said.
However, a spokesman for the West Contra Costa Unified School District said it wasn't the school system's job to safeguard students outside the dance. "Once the child leaves the dance, we don't take them home," Marin Trujillo told ABCNEWS.com.
But it should ultimately have been the school's responsibility to make sure the campus was a safe place to be that night.
The young men who attacked the girl did so in the school's courtyard, not off campus. For more than two hours, they continued their assault without once being interrupted by the cops, administrators, teachers and site supervisors who were there to provide security at the dance.
The job of these people might have been a lot easier if the school district had moved more quickly to install the security cameras, better lighting and improved fencing that Richmond High had sought for years. Last November, an investigative report by San Francisco's CBS.5 revealed that only seven of the school's 16 security cameras worked. New cameras and fencing would be installed by the summer, a school board member said back then.
That didn't happen. But the rape did. Now, more than those who committed that awful crime must be held accountable.