Alleged Rapes Show How Failed Oversight Endangers Florida's Most Vulnerable Children
Illustration by Larissa Kulik
Shortly after 8:30 p.m. on March 3, 2011, 16-year-old Susan Jackson returned to the Vanguard School in Lake Wales after a trip to Starbucks with a classmate. The girls' dorm monitor, Kami Land, had driven them in her car to the coffee shop and then dropped them off near Boyd Hall, their dorm at the center of campus. They were supposed to be in bed soon. Curfew at the private Florida boarding school for kids with learning disabilities was 10 p.m.
Instead of heading to her room, however, Susan walked away from the main cluster of buildings and toward the gym, the athletic field, and the woods that ringed a lake on the south end of campus, which is just south of Orlando. During the day, students played tennis, soccer, golf, and paintball on the grounds or canoed on the pristine water. At night, however, the campus' remote areas became popular spots for students looking to hook up or do drugs.
Therefore, they were off-limits to Susan unless a staff member accompanied her. Already, in January, she had been hospitalized after smoking marijuana laced with methamphetamine that she and a friend had bought off-campus. Following that incident, the school had promised Susan's parents it would monitor her more closely -- and even imposed a strict 9:30 curfew. Her mother demanded constant adult supervision of her daughter. "Susan is a follower and will not make the correct choice on her own," she warned.
When Susan failed to return by her curfew, a security guard went looking for her. He eventually found her -- distraught, frightened, and disoriented -- behind the school's greenhouse near the woods and took her back to the dorm.
"She was upset and very scared," recalled Ellen, a student who lived across the hall from Susan. "Her hair was messed up. She had mascara on her face, and it was obvious that she had been crying.
"I asked her, I said, 'Are you OK?' And she said, 'I was raped.'"
The details emerged gradually that night and the next day: Two male students had tricked Susan into walking with them into the woods on school grounds, the 16-year-old reported. Then they forced her to her knees and made her give one of them oral sex.
Nobody working at the school -- or in local law enforcement or at the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) -- adequately followed up on claims by Susan or several other victims of alleged crimes like assault at Vanguard. (New Times is withholding the real names of all juveniles in this story.) For instance, Det. Mary Jerome of the Lake Wales Police Department allowed the school's president to help in questioning the suspects, which is not common practice. And cops closed the case the same day the rape was reported without obtaining any evidence supporting the suspects' alibis.
Perhaps just as alarming, New Times has reviewed a 21-page list of 911 calls from the Vanguard School to the county's emergency call center between November 2010 and September 2014, plus a list of the far fewer service calls and even fewer arrests by Lake Wales cops. They indicate dozens of phoned-in emergencies, including at least a dozen assault cases and other violent disturbances -- and some attempted suicides.
It also seems incidents are sometimes neither reported nor logged. For instance, on January 17, 2013, according to former teacher Gail Bonnichsen, a teenage girl was allegedly assaulted on the grounds by a student who jammed his hand inside her, causing vaginal bleeding. But staff on duty that night brushed aside the girl's concerns and didn't call police or seek medical help -- until the girl told Bonnichsen about it late the next day. Bonnichsen claims she called a DCF abuse hotline and two local police departments, but the agencies never responded. "Nothing was done about it, and nobody gave a crap," Bonnichsen says.
The 48-year-old school caters primarily to children and teens with learning disabilities who may also have developmental problems. But over time, it has increasingly become a haven -- or "dumping ground," as one disgruntled parent calls it -- for generally affluent disturbed and violent youths. Even so, Vanguard's website promises that its "safe, supportive environment facilitates physical, social, and emotional growth of all students" and that its "dormitories are a home-away-from-home for [its] residential students."
In a 2011 reply to a lawsuit filed by Susan's family, the school's attorneys denied negligence. They also charged that Susan and her family were partially to blame for any harm to Susan by acting "negligently and carelessly" themselves. Despite repeated email and phone inquiries from New Times, school officials, including President Cathy Wooley-Brown, have declined to answer any broader questions about student safety and the alleged failure to properly report crimes. Polk County-based attorney Richard Straughn, who represents the school, wrote, "The health, safety, and well-being of students are top priorities at the Vanguard School... Part of our commitment includes complete respect for the confidentiality and privacy rights of our students and families."
The allegations of trouble at Vanguard are mirrored at comparable facilities across the country. Private schools and residential programs for youngsters with an array of issues are part of a multibillion-dollar industry. It includes thousands of facilities -- from boarding schools to wilderness camps to juvenile detention centers -- that house nearly 200,000 kids. They have not only learning disabilities but also emotional, behavioral, and addiction problems. Vanguard, though, doesn't employ the notorious tough-love approach common in many other teen residential programs. Tough-love tactics include sadistic punishments and harsh encounter-style groups designed to break troublemaking kids physically and emotionally.
The failed enforcement by local and state authorities is also shaped by some of the same forces driving the emerging scandal nearly 300 miles northwest at Florida State University in Tallahassee. There, recent investigations by the New York Times and other news outlets found an insufficient response to rape allegations against Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and other football players.
Illustration by Pat Kinsella
Yet no one is less protected than the 18-and-under kids in the youth programs across the nation that face virtually no meaningful state or federal oversight, according to the U.S. General Accountability Office and testimony before Congress in 2007 and 2008. As U.S. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, declared in 2007 at the opening of hearings on this ongoing but little-known crisis: "In far too many cases, the very people entrusted with the safety, health, and welfare of these children are the ones who violate that trust in some of the most horrific ways imaginable."
Programs for troubled kids have been around for centuries, though in the past few decades their numbers have grown substantially. In theory, they fill an important niche for children who can't survive in conventional school. Some programs successfully transition kids from outcasts to successful students. Many others fail in this task, leaving parents poorer for high tuition rates and their children in the same condition or, all too often, in far worse shape. Congressional interest in the schools was initially spurred by some highly publicized deaths among the more than 70 known fatalities -- and nearly 2,000 cases per year of staff abuse in these programs officially reported -- from 1997 to 2007. (None was at the Vanguard School, but perhaps the most notorious was the beating death by guards of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson at a Florida juvenile boot camp in 2006.)
What all of these programs share is a lack of accountability. Few, if any, states do a strong job of monitoring. Trade groups such as the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP) have successfully defeated both federal and state efforts to impose greater oversight. Robert Friedman, an emeritus professor of the Department of Child and Family Studies at the University of South Florida and founder of the reform group ASTART for Teens, observes, "You not only need good licensing law and policy, you need good monitoring and frequent review -- and the states do not have adequate staff to do the reviews."
On top of all that, advocacy groups remain mostly underfunded, loose networks of volunteers lacking real clout. Courts are generally no remedy either, with parents slow to admit they've been duped and lawyers reluctant to take on anything except wrongful-death lawsuits.
Florida is especially notorious for its lax oversight of vulnerable children. Private schools are barely monitored. Outside of an easily obtained business license, they don't get the oversight normally given to public schools or even state-sanctioned residential group homes that receive government funding.
This past January, University of South Florida researchers announced the findings from a makeshift graveyard at the notorious state-run Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, which closed in 2011 after a long history of abuse and scandal. At least 96 children died at the reform school between 1914 and 1973.
In 2012, the Tampa Bay Times exposed widespread patterns of brutality at unmonitored Christian academies, some operating outside the state's minimal private accrediting requirements. That prompted a preliminary state review but didn't lead the state to examine unlicensed secular schools such as Vanguard.
And this past September, the Miami Herald broke a story about a 14-year-old autistic girl from South Florida who died in July 2013 after being strapped to a bed for five days by staffers at the Carlton Palms Education Center in Mount Dora, where she had been vomiting and thrashing about with a high fever. Her death at the state's largest licensed residential center for severely disabled people sparked a probe, and now DCF is seeking to block new admissions.
Dangerous conditions at first glance seem unlikely at the bucolic Vanguard School, which is situated less than ten miles from Legoland in Winter Haven. Billing itself as an "international learning community," it boasts a state-ranked basketball team and claims 95 percent of graduates attend college. Most of all, however, it promises desperate parents a safe and supportive environment for students with dyslexia, attention-deficit disorder, and Asperger syndrome.
For up to $44,000 a year in tuition, the school offers small class sizes and curricula tailor-made for each child. Marketing materials speak of "transforming potential" and "accelerating achievement." Total enrollment is about 120. Students from around the globe attend grades 5 through 12, garnering the school $5.5 million in gross revenues during the last fiscal year. "Our nurturing environment and personalized programs will help your child develop to his or her fullest capability," declares a promotional video on Vanguard's website.
Before attending Vanguard, Susan Jackson was a pretty, doe-eyed girl whose affluent parents from a Mid-Atlantic suburb had been scrambling to find a program that would allow her to succeed. She had been diagnosed with an autism-related disability known as a "nonverbal learning disorder" that made her particularly trusting, unable to read social cues or facial expressions, and easily swayed. When she arrived at the school in September 2010, her parents hoped she'd fit in better and make greater academic progress than she had achieved at her previous specialized private school.
The night of the alleged attack, after she had returned to her dorm's kitchen, Susan told her dorm monitor, Kami Land, what had happened. (She would repeat basically the same version to her dorm mate Ellen that night and to police officers and a state child protection investigator the next day.)
As she was out walking, two 16-year-old classmates, David and William, had approached her, she reported. They said they wanted to talk about another boy whom Susan had a crush on. Eager to hear the gossip, she followed them into the woods along a path near the football field. Suddenly, David pushed her to the ground, she said. William pulled his pants down, grabbed Susan by her hair, and forced her to perform oral sex on him.
When Susan tried to escape, David stopped her and held onto her head, Susan said. The alleged assault lasted about 15 to 20 minutes. After William ejaculated in her mouth, the boys called Susan a "dirty whore" and walked off. Susan, left alone in the woods, felt sick and vomited.
Susan later told Land that she did not want to go to her room or go to sleep. She kept having flashbacks, she said, and was afraid the boys would come to her room and assault her again. Her throat, she said, hurt a lot when she swallowed.
"She was just kind of emotionless. She was putting her head down on the table. Just kind of a flat tone in her voice," Land recalled in her deposition.
Susan took a shower, and Ellen offered to sleep in Susan's two-bed dorm room so she wouldn't be alone. "When I went to sleep, she was still sitting up," Ellen recalled later in her deposition. Ellen phoned her mother first thing the next morning. "Something terrible has happened," she said. "I don't know why they didn't call the police."
Rather than call the police or a doctor, however, Land contacted her immediate supervisor, Felix Lugo, the assistant director of residential life, on the phone and then sent an email at 1:08 a.m. to Lugo, dorm director Albert Alexander, and Vanguard President Cathy Wooley-Brown, telling them what had happened. The incident report was labeled as having "high" importance.
Illustration by Pat Kinsella
When Wooley-Brown arrived at the school early that morning after a drive from her home in a Tampa suburb about an hour away, she first interviewed staff members and the boys who had allegedly raped Susan. Only then, around 9:30 a.m., did she call the Lake Wales Police Department.
Later that morning, before police arrived to investigate Susan's rape report, Wooley-Brown took extra steps to keep the full story quiet, according to Ellen's deposition. When Wooley-Brown took Ellen to the infirmary on a golf cart to rest, the exhausted high-schooler confided in her that one of the boys had previously raped another female student. The victim herself had told Ellen.
Wooley-Brown then allegedly looked Ellen in the face and said, "You don't need to get involved in drama like this," Ellen said in a deposition. "And I think that is horrible. That is wrong for her to have said that." That earlier alleged rape by the same suspect was never reported to police. Indeed, police records show Ellen was never interviewed by police in Susan's case.
When Lake Wales Police Officer Lynette Townsel arrived, she met with Wooley-Brown, who essentially sided with the suspects. As she later explained her views in a deposition: "Susan had a propensity for not telling the truth."
Lead detective Mary Jerome showed up later in the morning. She soon observed Susan being interviewed by a DCF-funded Child Protection Team and noted, "She wants to leave school because she doesn't feel safe there." Although her infuriated mother insisted on a forensic, medical rape exam for her daughter, neither police officers nor the child protection staffer offered the girl that opportunity.
In sworn interviews back at the president's office, the boys offered an alternate version of events from the previous night: Susan was looking for drugs.
"She said, 'I want to have sex with you if you give me some drugs.' I said, 'No.' I walked away," William said in his interview, according to police records. "She said, 'If you give me some drugs, I will fuck you.'"
Jerome allowed the president of Vanguard to sit in and ask supportive questions of the suspects during her so-called interrogation. Then she closed the case the same day the rape was reported, accepting Wooley-Brown's unverified claims that the school had videotape proving the boys were in their dorm rooms when Susan said they had raped her. Wooley-Brown never produced the videotape during either the criminal investigation or the lawsuit that followed.
Yet by the end of that day, Jerome apparently had all the evidence she needed. "After concluding my investigation, I have determined the suspects were not able to commit the crime of sexual battery during the time the victim has stated. Video evidence, along with faculty and student statements, have the suspects in their dorm at the time this incident occurred," she wrote in her final report, despite never actually seeing any video. "Case status: Closed."
Her closing of the case was approved by a captain, James Foy, who himself had pleaded "no contest" to having sex with a 15-year-old girl while working at another police department. He was fired in January 2012 after a county prosecutor said he would no longer accept the captain's testimony.
Indeed, there was no verifiable evidence supporting the suspects' alibis, a review of Jerome's report and other depositions in the civil lawsuit reveal. And Susan's timeline of events clashed with that of the school staff and the suspects.
But Detective Jerome apparently didn't seek any evidence to resolve the critical differences. During the course of the civil lawsuit, though, the issue was eventually settled in Susan's favor when a time stamp -- that Jerome had never obtained -- from the front gate showed that Susan had arrived back at the school around 8:30 p.m. as she had claimed, not at 9 p.m. as the dorm supervisor and suspects had alleged.
A former Lake Wales Police officer who successfully sued the department for discrimination related to pregnancy in 2008 reviewed case materials sent by New Times. "The investigation completed by the Lake Wales Police is well below standards and is a gross violation of public trust," says Cynthia Cavallaro, who was given the case materials by New Times.
Det. Kirk Griffith, a former top investigator with the innovative Sexual Assault Unit of the Dallas Police Department, also reviewed the case. "A lot was lacking in some of the things needed for verification," he says, taking particular notice of Wooley-Brown's presence at the interrogation. "The supposed interrogation of suspects was not a true interrogation."
In fall 2011, Susan's family sued the school for negligence. By August 2013, as the civil lawsuit moved ahead, Detective Jerome reportedly disavowed the findings and accuracy of her own report, according to a source familiar with her criminal investigation.
The suit was settled in October 2013 for an undisclosed sum, and a gag order was placed on all parties. The Lake Wales Police Department declined to comment for this article. "We respectfully decline to make statements or to be interviewed about the investigation or former employees," Deputy Chief Troy Schulze told New Times.
The path to penetrating the wall of silence protecting Vanguard may have begun with an unrelated phone call that Jillie Ryan, a Palm Beach County single mom, answered several years ago.
All she heard at first were the sobs from her 14-year-old child frantically calling from a "therapeutic" boarding school in Georgia. A staff member was monitoring the call and kept interrupting, but a horrified Ryan heard her teenager say, "There was blood everywhere. I had to walk through the blood!"
Ryan would later learn that the pool of blood had seeped into the hallway from the dorm room where a classmate had tried to kill herself by slitting her wrists. In fact, it was just part of an ongoing wave of suicide attempts that led to 16 attempted hangings in ten months by students at the $5,000-a-month Hidden Lake Academy in rural Georgia. (The name was changed to Ridge Creek School after a 2009 bankruptcy hearing.)
"It was one of the worst days of my life," Ryan says of the day she received the call. She is the ex-wife of a former Philadelphia Flyers president and a charismatic, strikingly attractive middle-aged woman whose admirers now liken to famous environmental activist Erin Brockovich.
That was the day she began standing up for her child's rights in a more forceful way -- a way that eventually evolved into a campaign for reform of "troubled teen" programs in Florida and other states. She angrily demanded that her teenager be placed back on the phone, alone. "Take your body out of the room or I will call the police," she told the school monitor.
Illustration by Pat Kinsella
Her work since has drawn the attention of thousands of youth advocates who follow her scoops and commentary on the blog she launched in 2011 -- Jillie's Take -- as well as the leaders of allegedly abusive facilities who end up in her crosshairs. Rumors of potential death threats were so prevalent among some Hidden Lake Academy sympathizers that she took to checking underneath her car for explosives.
She ultimately removed her child from the school in 2005 but didn't stop fighting until it was shut down two years ago. Her dogged efforts helped create a firestorm of bad news for the school, leading to a class-action lawsuit, negative publicity on Atlanta's Fox News station, and an IRS investigation and lien. "We were relentless," Ryan says. She successfully pressured the school to close even as all levels of government failed to respond to overwhelming evidence that government investigators had found of alleged assaults and abuse. "No one in any agency lifted a finger," she says.
A tip alerted Jillie Ryan to complaints about the Vanguard School in December 2011. Soon she discovered that the day before the alleged rape of Susan Jackson in March 2011, Marcia Rubinstien, a Connecticut-based educational consultant, had alerted colleagues on a listserv about dangers at Vanguard. Rubinstien, who had been hired by Susan's family, was concerned about her client's safety.
Rubinstien told New Times that she didn't call authorities because "the information I had was hearsay." Now, she says, "I would recommend that no child be sent there until the social environment is conducive to the safety of the student."
After reading the allegation, Ryan recalls, "My first reaction was, Dear God... other children were at risk."
She quickly appealed to the governor's office, DCF, and the media, among others. "No one cared," she says.
About the same time Jillie Ryan was going public over the airwaves, Gail Bonnichsen, then a teacher at Vanguard, listened with horror on January 18 as a student she mentored described a sexual assault on the football field the night before. A musician student with long fingernails, the girl said, had scraped her vaginal walls.
Bonnichsen says she discovered that school staff had brushed aside the girl's claim because she was known to be promiscuous. "She needed medical care," Bonnichsen observes. She says she contacted her own gynecologist, who treated the girl.
At 7:22 the evening she was told of the rape -- she recorded the time -- Bonnichsen called the DCF abuse hotline, she says. She identified herself and gave the name of the alleged perpetrator and victim to Operator #327. Then, referred by DCF, she phoned the county sheriff's office and later spoke to the police department nearest her hometown.
But three Polk County police departments, including Lake Wales, deny they were ever notified about the alleged rape at the Vanguard School. When Bonnichsen sought to find out earlier this year what had happened to her report to DCF, she discovered the agency couldn't find a record of her call. A staffer promised to get back to her but never did. Bonnichsen, an English teacher who specializes in students with learning disabilities and has served as a prep school admissions director, contends that Vanguard Principal Derri Park even chastised her for reporting the alleged attack. "I told her I did what I was charged to do: 'This is abuse and I had to report it,'" Bonnichsen declares. (Park didn't respond to New Times' phone and email inquiries seeking her version of events.)
When a boy in Bonnichsen's class was clearly attacked with a knife and brutally beaten by a classmate during a weekend trip in spring 2013, she again reported it. And again she was rebuked. "I got called into the office, and Cathy Wooley-Brown told me I was 'inappropriate' for contacting [authorities]," she recalls.
Bonnichsen left the school in summer 2013 after working there only two years. In her view, the school's general approach to violence is "a coverup," worsened by the apparent failure of law enforcement to respond. "I hope you understand how sad this makes me. I tried to do the right thing," she says.
A consulting school psychologist named Mary Travis says she had counseled the victim of the alleged rape reported by Bonnichsen in 2013. She claims violence was common at the school. "There were kids who hit teachers [and were] allowed to do pretty much what they wanted," she says. Vanguard's approach to reporting problems, she says, was: "If you are going to write it down, don't put in too many details... I was told that directly by Dr. Brown. I was intimidated by her."
Reform efforts in this field -- or in any campaign to protect Florida's most vulnerable children -- face a steep uphill climb. The state's news media, including the Miami Herald, have long chronicled DCF's failures to protect kids from neglect, abuse, and death. Most of the secretaries of the scandal-plagued DCF and its predecessor, Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS), have resigned under fire since the 1990s -- from Bob Williams in 1993 to David Wilkins in 2013. There have been myriad legislative fixes and vows of reform.
Yet not much has changed over time. Even with the passage of laws in the 2014 state Legislature designed to create more transparency and strengthen abuse investigations, DCF's historically toxic culture of neglect, secrecy, and incompetence seems unmoved. "Politicians won't care until their own child is killed or abused," says Jillie Ryan.
But some advocates have made a major difference both through the courts and effective lobbying. Take, for instance, Howard Talenfeld, a Broward County attorney who in 2001 founded Florida's Children First, dedicated to protecting children under state care. In November 2011, he won a $4 million settlement on behalf of a 13-year-old hearing-impaired boy at the now-closed special-needs treatment program Tampa Bay Academy. The state ignored reports of sexual assaults at the facility for nearly 18 years before moving to close it in 2008, his lawsuit documented.
This year, his Florida's Children First group and allies successfully pressed for a change in DCF's law requiring the agency to investigate teen-on-teen rapes up through age 18 of the victims. But that change applies only to youth under state care or custody. "Nobody tracks which kids are sexually aggressive between 12 and 18," he says. "This is a big issue."
And there's still no federal response. Although the House of Representatives passed an oversight measure in 2008, the "Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens" bill never made it through the full Congress. The hopes for any national legislation have faded along with the pending retirement of the leading advocate for federal oversight -- Rep. George Miller -- and the reluctance of Congress to pass tough new regulation of any industry.
Even for Susan Jackson, the trauma is far from over. The day after the reported sexual assault in March 2011, the then-16-year-old's parents flew to Florida and pulled her from the school. "Susan and her family have been shattered by this," says a Vanguard parent who knows them well but asked not to be identified.
Susan was sent to another private school for the learning disabled in the Southwest. Soon she alleged in therapy sessions that she had been sexually exploited by a 28-year-old monitor at Vanguard. According to a Lake Wales Police investigation in March 2012, Susan said the man had talked her into sex about four or five times in his car. It was usually on campus, she said, but also occurred once at the Eagle Ridge Mall in Lake Wales. "At night she has nightmares and flashbacks about the incidents," according to police documents. She also described a tattoo of a cross on the man's shoulder.
Susan confided in a counselor at her new school that she hadn't told anyone about the alleged sexual encounters with the adult, apparently because of the fear, trauma, and shame she had felt then. Thoughts about the monitor's alleged sexual exploitation recurred following new nightmares over Vanguard: "I don't know, I just blocked it out," she explained to her therapist when asked why she hadn't complained about it earlier.
In fact, Lake Wales Police and DCF learned that another girl had made claims against the Vanguard monitor. DCF advised the school that he shouldn't be allowed alone with female students. That didn't deter the school from offering to rehire him for the next school year, according to his employment records and the man's interview with New Times. But he took another job instead.
The monitor, whose name New Times is withholding, denies he engaged in sex with any students at Vanguard. But he admitted to a brief affair with the second girl after she graduated. "I did not have sex with any of the females there," he says. "I will put that in writing."
Susan's parents and those of the other alleged victim determined their daughters were too psychologically vulnerable to be interviewed by Lake Wales Police about the man, so the case was dropped.
Indeed, troubling memories of Susan's time at Vanguard continue to plague her. A school counselor's report in March 2012 details her psychological state: "Flashbacks/nightmares began that were associated with the sexual assault situation that had occurred with two boys at the school."
These days, the school seems to have sidestepped the scandal. There has been no local publicity about the lawsuit or the two police investigations involving Susan or the numerous emergency calls to the county dispatch center about crimes and attempted suicides.
When a reporter recently approached the front gate and asked for Cathy Wooley-Brown, he was told, "She's not available to come to the phone."
The silence protecting the Vanguard School in Lake Wales, it seems, continues.
Research for this article was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
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