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Rice grads criticize school’s response to sexual assault allegations

Updated: Jun. 9, 2021 at 4:29 PM EDT
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SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Some former Rice Memorial High School students are speaking out, claiming school officials didn’t do enough to respond to allegations of sexual assault.

A small group of current and former students along with parents gathered outside the South Burlington school Wednesday morning.

“We are here to stand up against sexual assault within Rice Memorial High School,” said Hannah Sheppard, a recent graduate of Rice.

Sheppard says she didn’t feel heard or safe in the school when she reported the abuse she had suffered to the administration. WCAX News only reveals the identity of sex crime victims with their consent.

“As a person and a victim of sexual assault, I am a quiet person, I never really spoke about it and I didn’t feel protected by the school when I did go to them to speak about it,” Sheppard said. “I know of many other girls, some standing here today, who are victims of this and nothing was done within the school to protect us.”

Samantha Morgan is also a recent graduate and says she was sexually assaulted on campus. She, too, says she reported the incident to school officials.

“They just chose to believe the perpetrator instead of the victim and I continued to have classes with him,” Morgan said.

South Burlington Police tell me they are aware of reported incidents involving Rice students at that time. They say no criminal charges have resulted from any of these allegations in South Burlington but one case was handled by the community justice center’s restorative process at the request of the survivor.

Rice did not make anyone available for an interview but provided a statement from Principal Lisa Lorenz, saying the school takes all allegations seriously. It goes on to say: “While Rice followed all the policies and procedures required when conducting an investigation involving minors, it can often leave one party dissatisfied with outcomes. However, dissatisfaction with the outcome should not be equated with ignoring the complaint.”

I was also told no complaints were made to Bishop Christopher Coyne of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington which owns and operates the school, and he was not involved in the investigation.

But these students are demanding change. They want Rice to re-examine its protocols for dealing with student sexual violence with a focus on helping victims feel safe at school.

“I just feel like they don’t care about us if they are going to continue to not listen to us,” Sheppard said.

Vermont has a mandatory reporting law that covers all school personnel. Anyone who reasonably suspects child abuse or neglect is legally required to make a report to the state within 24 hours.

Rice maintains it followed all protocols. But because of confidentiality issues, both the Vermont Agency of Education and the Department for Children and Families said they could not comment.

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