SALT LAKE CITY -- A lawsuit accuses an elite private school in Utah of mishandling a 2017 sexual assault allegation from a student with disabilities who endured bullying from classmates, including a reenactment of the rape during a school assembly.
Administrators at Waterford School held a meeting with the rest of her class where they shared details of the off-campus allegations and would not help the 17-year-old girl enforce a protective order against her classmate, according to the lawsuit seeking $10 million in damages.
“I don’t want anybody else who goes to Waterford to be hurt in the same way I was hurt,” Tabitha Bell, now 20, said in a interview Monday from her home in California.
The Associated Press does not typically name people who say they are victims of sexual assault, but Bell said she wanted to share her story publicly to help other students who are assaulted and fellow students with disabilities.
Waterford officials say they “categorically disagree” with her allegations. Head of School Andrew Menke said Tuesday that staffers do not discriminate based on disability or other factors.
“The accusations leveled in this suit are inflammatory and not an accurate representation of how the school supported this student through five years of attendance,” he said in a statement. “We take seriously the well-being of each student and have an environment, where respect and inclusion make possible the deepest forms of intellectual, emotional, and character growth.”
School officials declined to comment on the details of Bell's allegations in the lawsuit she filed Friday. She reported the rape allegations to police, but prosecutors initially declined to file charges because she “failed to say or physically manifest any lack of consent at this time, other than not actively participating,” prosecutors said in a letter obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.
Bell said she froze in fear when the boy who had been her friend began assaulting her, a response reported by many sexual assault victims. She said her disability, moreover, makes her largely unable to physically fight. Bell has a rare form of muscular dystrophy that affects her strength and balance, making it harder for her to do things like walk on her own.
The Utah attorney general is now reviewing the case after Bell helped advocate for a change to state law last year. Her lawsuit does not name the classmate she accused of assaulting her.
When her family decided to enroll her in 2014 at the $25,000-a-year private school in Sandy, near Salt Lake City, administrators promised to accommodate her disability.
That didn’t happen, Bell said in the lawsuit. Instead, her classmates were asked to carry her up and down stairs she couldn’t navigate — even when there were relatively simple alternatives, like a more accessible entrance to the stage at a choir performance. In that case, the director thought allowing her to enter and leave in a different spot from the other students would “ruin the look” of the performance, the lawsuit claims.
“It was definitely humiliating ... having my peers carry me around, look at me like I’m this sickly student,” she said. “I try to be as self-sufficient as I can be, and all I was asking for was normal, small accommodations.”
She also alleges a Waterford teacher accused her of faking her disability and another asked her to do things like moving desks that caused her to fall and get a concussion.
Things “went from bad to worse" after Bell reported an off-campus rape by a classmate in November 2017, her senior year, the lawsuit says. She obtained a protective order, but school officials said they couldn’t restrict the boy from campus even after he graduated a month after she reported the allegations.
Two of the boy’s friends reenacted the assault at a school assembly in December 2017, Bell said, and she heard her classmates in the audience laughing before the principal stopped it. She alleges administrators didn’t do enough to stop the bullying, instead offering her an early graduation plan, saying it would make other students “more comfortable,” the lawsuit says.
Still, she had some support among a few friends as the #MeToo movement took off nationwide, Bell said. Then, in February 2018, administrators called a meeting of the senior class to which she was not invited, according to the lawsuit. Officials discussed details of her claims and told students not to speak with her, the lawsuit says. After that, she said her friends stopped sitting with her and dropped out of a fundraiser she was organizing.
Still, she finished her senior year, graduated and is now attending the University of California, Berkeley. She’s studying to be a pediatric trauma psychologist, hoping she can give back and speak out on behalf of sexual assault victims and people with disabilities.
“I want to be able to allow all these experiences to actually do something good,” she said. “I want to be able to give that voice.”