Boy, 13, alleges sex assault by fellow students at SEED school

Incident said to have taken place May 28 at public boarding school

June 10, 2013|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

A 13-year-old boy is alleging he was sexually assaulted by other students at the SEED School of Maryland, a public boarding school for at-risk children in Southwest Baltimore.

Police confirmed that they were investigating the incident, which is alleged to have occurred in a dormitory May 28. The boy told his parents about it on June 4, according to police, who declined to release other details and withheld the incident report.

Students stay at the school in dorms from Sunday afternoon to Friday afternoon, living with support staff. Spots in the school are coveted, with prospective students and their parents attending a lottery hoping to hear their number called.

The SEED Foundation, which runs the school, released a statement saying that the school's leadership had launched an investigation and has begun dismissal hearings for the students alleged to have been involved. The school also said a counselor who was on duty at the time of the assault was "released" but declined to elaborate.

"Our leadership team is working closely with the affected student and his mother, assuring them of our due diligence and supporting them in whatever ways we can," the statement said. The school also "held all-staff and all-student meetings, using this time to re-iterate the importance of SEED's core values and ensuring we provide a safe and secure campus — our highest priority at SEED."

Reached by phone, members of the Maryland SEED school's board of trustees said the board had collectively decided to refer questions to the SEED Foundation.

Former State Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat who introduced the bill that created the SEED School of Maryland, is now a member of its board and said she remains confident in the school and its mission.

"I think there's always a concern, in any school, about what can happen. I think we're all aware of that," Hollinger said. "I don't think it would ever be unusual in any school for anything to happen, but the school is very well-equipped with the staff they have to handle things."

The board has several other members who are high-profile civic leaders, including U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and music mogul Kevin Liles.

The SEED school began in Washington in 1998, and became one of the highest-performing charter schools, with 97 percent of students going on to attend four-year colleges. Most students come to the school from economically disadvantaged families, have little support at home or have been doing poorly in elementary school.

Maryland's SEED school was started in 2006 and opened in 2009 at the site of the former Southwestern High School; it has received millions in upgrades through a fundraising campaign. It functions like an independent school system, with broad oversight from the state, and has been ramping up the number of students to about 375 last year. The school was featured recently on "60 Minutes."

The Baltimore Sun reported in August 2011 that the school had not immediately delivered the kind of success expected when it was created. The first head of the school left within six months of its opening, and a new head, Khalek Kirkland, took over and began making changes.

A spokeswoman for the foundation said Kirkland would not be available for comment, but said all parents had been notified of the incident and a review of school policies and procedures was underway.

"We take seriously the trust our families place in us to keep their children safe and to handle unfortunate situations like this one thoughtfully and swiftly," said the spokeswoman, the SEED Foundation's director of communications, Laura O'Connor.

O'Connor said that the school had reduced staff in the fall but said the school maintains a "no greater than 15 to 1 student to staff member ratio, often less than that."

She said she could not comment on how many students the staff member who was let go was responsible for on the night of the alleged attack, citing the investigation.

Data from the SEED school show a sharp decline in the number of incidents resulting in expulsion or suspension, state records show — in the 2009-2010 school year, the school reported 221 suspensions or expulsions, including five for sex offenses. The number jumped to 287 in the school's second year, with one reported sex offense. That year there were 139 expulsions or suspensions for fighting or threats, and 87 for disrespect or insubordination.

But last year the school reported that number had dropped to just 40 total incidents, with no sex offenses, the state data show.

Incidents of bullying, harassment and intimidation reported separately under the Safe Schools Reporting Act also dropped substantially. In 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years, the school reported 30 and 29 incidents, respectively.

SEED reported five such incidents in the 2011-2012 school year.

Though SEED said it was moving to dismiss the students involved in the alleged attack, police cautioned that the investigation was ongoing. In an unusual move, they declined to make an incident report available.

"The Baltimore Police Department is withholding the report, given the specifics of the investigation," said spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. "The specifics will not be revealed until we can talk to all of the people of interest."

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