Emmalyn Brown

A provided photo of Emmalyn Brown in front of the Athens Middle School. Photo by Abigail Brown.

The Athens City School District announced Thursday that it’s launching an investigation into a former Athens Middle School student’s claims that former Middle School Principal Paul Grippa (a current Athens City School Board member) failed to properly investigate or report to police the student’s claims of sexual harassment and assault against another student eight years ago.

The announcement came in the wake of an online petition by that student that went public Monday, asking that Grippa be removed from the School Board.

The petition had garnered more than 750 signatures as of Sunday morning. The student – Athens High School graduate Emmalyn Brown, 20 – alleges in the petition (and has told The NEWS in a separate interview) that Grippa not only failed to report her claims of sexual assault and harassment to police when she approached school officials with her account in early fall 2010; he also later destroyed records of the investigation, and asked her to apologize to her alleged perpetrator, Brown alleged. 

As a result, she added in the petition, she continued to have classes with that student and experience “bullying and continued harassment” throughout high school.

According to the School District’s release in response to Brown’s petition, “the Athens City School District is arranging for an investigation by an outside investigator to review the allegations and determine whether administrators acted in accordance with the board’s policies in effect in 2010.”

This isn’t the first time the School District has investigated a school official for potentially failing to report allegations of sexual misconduct. In 2015, the district conducted an investigation into whether then School Supt. Carl Martin had failed to report to police rumors that Isaac Thomas, a former Athens High School teacher who was sentenced to five years in prison for sexual battery of a student in 2015, had had sexual relationships with at least one student. The investigation concluded that Martin was within his rights to not report the rumors. Martin retired soon after that conclusion.

Grippa, who retired from working for the School District administration in 2014, said in response to the petition in a brief interview Tuesday that he remembers Brown making the report to him, but he declined to comment on the allegations listed in the petition.

“I remember her making a report and I can’t share much of the details with you, other than to say that we have cameras in the building,” Grippa said. “We were able to get a definitive resolution because the cameras were very clear – and as a matter of the fact, we got a definitive resolution to everyone’s satisfaction, her parents included.”

Brown said in response Tuesday that she recalls the Athens Middle School installing cameras after she reported being sexually assaulted in the school’s auditorium in early fall 2010; her father, Athens resident Jeff Brown, added in a separate interview that camera footage was “never mentioned” in his conversations with the School District, and said that he’s angry that the district appeared to “suppress” the severity of the alleged incident.

Brown already had made the district aware of her concerns in a sit-down meeting with current Supt. Gibbs in 2016, when Brown said Gibbs told her the School District had destroyed the records of any investigation into her complaint.

Gibbs confirmed to The NEWS during an interview on Aug. 6, before the petition went public, that the records of the investigation were destroyed per the School District’s previous practice with regard to investigating claims of “bullying or harassment.”

Brown acknowledged that because she was only 13 at the time of the reported sexual assault, she “downplayed” her story of the sexual assault to Grippa, which she said came after a year of sexual harassment from her perpetrator and his friends, but does remember providing the names of multiple witnesses to that harassment and other evidence about the harassment.

Brown said that regardless, Grippa and the School District were both obliged under federal Title IX law to investigate her claims thoroughly. Grippa also likely would have been obliged under Ohio law to report to police or Children Services any signs of “abuse or neglect.”

“I understand that in my initial interview with Dr. Grippa when I was 13, I did not drive home the point that I had been sexually assaulted and instead focused on the bullying and harassment I received at school,” Brown said. “As a child, it was hard enough for me already to come to my principal’s office alone and describe what had happened to me. When he pressed me and told me that I could ruin a young man’s life and that I could hurt my classmates, that made it even harder.

“I was traumatized, intimidated, and I didn’t even have the words or resources to name what my classmate did to me as ‘sexual assault,’” Brown continued. “In the moment, my fear got the best of me, and I tried to say that the assault was no big deal, and focus on the harassment. I’ve felt guilt and shame for years about not pushing harder to get Dr. Grippa to take my sexual assault seriously. However, now that I’m an adult, I understand that it should not have been my responsibility as a child to convince an adult and an educator to do their job.”

A friend of Brown and her father both confirmed in separate interviews last week that Brown divulged the alleged sexual assault and sexual harassment incidences in 2010. Emmalyn Brown added that the day after she and her friends reported the incidences to the school, her perpetrator was informed of the allegations, but the school made no effort to separate the two. 

SUPT. GIBBS CONFIRMED IN THE interview two weeks ago that the School District has changed the way it investigates claims of sexual harassment, assault, and gender-or-race-based discrimination or violence.

Previously, these claims would be lumped under a single category of “bullying or harassment,” and would be investigated by the principal of the building as a “disciplinary infraction,” Gibbs said. Typically, he explained, those records would be removed (and destroyed) from the alleged student perpetrator’s education records within a year, so long as the student was not expelled for the conduct. Gibbs said that if those claims were believed by administrators to reach a criminal level, they would be reported to law enforcement or local Children Services.

Since 2016, however, Gibbs said the School District has changed the way it investigates these claims “substantially.” In particular, the district now will move immediately to separate a student claiming to have been sexually harassed or assaulted from their alleged perpetrator, whether that be by changing class schedules or even busing routes. The School District also will begin a “more thorough” investigation into the claims via federal Title IX policy requirement, whereas previously principals typically would investigate these claims as “disciplinary incidents,” and usually come up with a resolution within 72 hours.

“(Now) with instances of this nature, it may take longer than that time to do a really thorough investigation, to get witness statements,” Gibbs explained. “Also if… it’s a potential criminal investigation, you have to be careful not to impede (that investigation)… so you may need to say, ‘OK, when are we allowed to start talking with students involved?’”

Gibbs provided records last Thursday in response to an Athens NEWS request showing that since the 2015-2016 school year, the Athens City School District had received one complaint of sexual assault and eight complaints of sexual harassment. However, before that time, Gibbs said, “we did not begin separating out sexual harassment complaints from other bullying complaints.”

He directed The NEWS to the School District website, which lists a total of 42 bullying incidents that were reported to the ACSD since the 2010-2011 school year.

Brown provided multiple records of her journals and emails with friends since the assault, which appear to show a young woman struggling to come to grips with what had happened to her and the School District’s alleged lack of response. She also provided records of her being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by her college campus’ Women’s Resource and Action Center in 2016 related to “sexual harassment, sexual assault, and an extended period of bullying and isolation that spanned the period of seventh through 11th grade.”

Brown declined to name her alleged perpetrator in the interview with The Athens NEWS, and said she never reported the sexual assault to the police. This was partly because she said she was afraid of retribution from her perpetrator and because she wasn’t believed by friends, family and the School District. She also said she wanted to focus her efforts on holding the district accountable for its failure to respond to the alleged incident.

Brown provided a record of a complaint she filed with the federal Office for Civil Rights about the School District’s response to the alleged incident in 2016, but the records show it was dismissed in 2017 as a result of a six-month statute of limitations on such complaints.

Brown – who is now a registered rape crisis advocate and an activist at her college in Iowa – said Friday that she’s glad the ACSD administration is investigating her complaints.

However, she noted, “It’s unfortunate that it took eight years and outpouring of #MeToos to reach this point,” Brown said. “I don’t understand why ACSD did not investigate when I met with administrators my freshman year of college in 2016. By that point, I finally learned my rights and understood for myself the violations in policy and protections that I had faced. This alongside the rejection of my Office for Civil Rights complaint shows some of the many pitfalls survivors face. I’m thankful for the support I’ve received and will continue to fight so that no student has to fall through the cracks like I did, and can learn equally.” 

GIBBS AND OTHER members of the School District administration attended a Title IX training session last Monday, and Gibbs emphasized during the interview that the Athens City Schools administration is constantly trying to improve its response to sexual assault and harassment.

Gibbs said that the district has an online training module on identifying and reporting signs of abuse and neglect that all staff members take when they start working there; the module has five sections, and after the initial training, staff members review a different section each year.

Gibbs added that the School District is also considering changes to the sex education components of its health classes, including additional information on consent and “healthy relationships.” The district already begins the conversation in this area with the so-called “fifth-grade talk” in fifth grade, Gibbs said, but is considering moving some of that information to the fourth-grade level as well.

Gibbs added that ACSD takes the conversation about sexual harassment and assault “very seriously” and assured parents that, moving forward, the district will take reports of this nature seriously and will investigate them thoroughly.

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