Little Elm High parents question sexual misconduct investigations, force used at protest

A high school sexual assault allegation followed by a protest that went wrong has become the foundation of discussion between Little Elm ISD alumni, parents and students regarding what they call a pattern of incomplete investigations, unheard concerns and lack of accountability.

Local residents raised concerns questioning not only what many considered excessive police force against at a Nov. 19 protest at which four students were arrested, but also sexual misconduct and the handling of those allegations for years. A Facebook status posted by the high school the day of the protest, which has since become unavailable — with the school saying it disappeared and parents alleging it was deleted — racked up over 600 comments sharing experiences with the district and saying that the protest did not come as a surprise.

Parents see pattern of ignored allegations

Sabrina Garza and Carolyn Pippins are two mothers who say they experienced the dismissal of sexual harassment and assault allegations without initial in-depth investigations.

Garza, the mother of a junior at the high school, said her daughter was sexually harassed by a staff member on campus last year. She said the claim was ignored until she started an independent investigation.

“It’s terrifying, I think for any female in today’s age, no matter what situation whether it be a … school or anything else, it’s just a super scary time to be a woman,” Garza said. “Our situation, even more upsettingly, happened with their school security guard, and just like every other story I’ve heard, they called her a liar. They didn’t believe her.”

Garza, whose mother works at a local police department, helped launch an independent investigation into the allegation after being told the best the school could do is move the staff member to a different part of the building, she said. After getting statements, witness accounts and digging into social media, Garza said, she got the school board involved and attested to her daughter’s statements.

The security guard was later terminated, Garza said.

“If they will allow something like that without giving it a second thought, I mean, who’s to say that they’re going to protect her from physical violence, like if girls were to get in a fight?” Garza said. “We’re already scared to send our kids to school anyway because of the way the world is today, but this just makes it a million times worse.”

Pippins, who has a daughter who graduated in 2021, another who’s a freshman and one under 2 years old, said her eldest child was sexually assaulted at the school about four years ago. Her daughter did not immediately come forward following the assault, but later contacted school officials. She was told it was too late to report the incident, Pippins said.

“Because she didn’t divulge it for over a year, they wouldn’t take the report or anything. It wasn’t until two years after the incident when finally the Oak Point police were like, ‘This has to be reported,’” Pippins said. “The high school just kind of looked at me like I was stupid.”

The report was taken seriously after a suicide attempt, she said.

“I thought it was an isolated incident, but apparently it’s not,” Pippins said. “And it breaks my heart, because this should never have happened. I mean, it’s bad enough that the incident itself happens, but now, they’re not being listened to or taken seriously enough. … It’s heartbreaking. It’s upsetting.”

School officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the mothers’ allegations. Little Elm officials have said that the complaint that led to the protest was investigated but that there wasn’t enough evidence to file charges.

An online petition, created by a Little Elm High School sophomore, says the Nov. 19 demonstration was in response to at least 10 sexual assault or sexual harassment allegations that were ignored by school authorities.

The petition alleges that aside from the reported incident of a girl being harassed by another student on a school bus — to the point she began riding with friends because of her discomfort and fear — which was the main catalyst to the student demonstration, that other young girls were harassed. The petition mentions another instance where a girl said she was sexually assaulted at a friend’s house then later placed in a class with the boy after reporting the assault.

The town, through a website created to “address and clarify distortions, misinformation and falsehoods” surrounding the protest, said Little Elm has only received one report of sexual misconduct at the school this year.

“Little Elm knows of only one such report this year — the one that sparked the current discussion,” the site read. “Anyone who has first-hand knowledge of any incident involving sexual assault on school property or during the school day should immediately make a report to Little Elm Police. Police take the appropriate action in every single case for which (they receive) a report.”

A public records request by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to the school district on Nov. 24 asking for the number of sexual misconduct incidents reported within the last five years has not been fulfilled or answered as of Tuesday.

Lack of accountability

In addition to the handling of sexual misconduct allegations, parents expressed concern regarding what many felt was excessive and overbearing force by police during the Nov. 19 protest, which led to the arrest of four students and a viral video of one of the students being pepper-sprayed and tased.

The school district’s superintendent and town’s mayor released a video statement saying that the circulated video of the incident “lack[ed] context necessary to understand everything that’s happening in the moment.”

“Whenever an officer arrests someone who’s acting aggressively or resisting, it’s hard to watch, but Texas law gives police the right to take steps necessary to make an arrest,” Mayor Curtis Cornelious said in the video statement. “Those steps include the use of tasers and pepper spray, as safe, non-lethal methods of subduing someone who has been aggressive or refusing to respond to requests.”

“This demonstration on Friday was not peaceful and caused a major disruption,” Gallagher said in the social media video. “In one incident, not currently shown on social media, a large group of students attempted to break into an administrator’s office in pursuit of targeted individuals who were in genuine fear for their safety.”

Cornelious said that two students assaulted police officers and a third tried to interfere with an arrest, which caused the teen to be pepper-sprayed and later tased “when the student would not stop advancing toward the officer.” A fourth student reportedly spit on an officer.

Yet, many parents argued that since the high school had prior knowledge of the demonstration before it occurred, procedures should have been put in place to ensure student and staff safety.

“My biggest disappointment is in all of the announcements. No matter where it is, or what’s been said, it’s always pointing the blame on the students. The district and the police have not taken accountability whatsoever on their part,” said Paula Thigpen Dauro, a grandmother of a teenage girl who she said was injured in the protest.

“It’s a combination of everything. What happened was not just the kids, I feel like it was a failure of the administration big time, a failure to take charge in the beginning,” Thigpen said. “You’ve got a 17-year-old who doesn’t really think that far ahead. When you have police come in, they should be skilled enough in de-escalating situations and taking control, but they didn’t. They just exacerbated the situation and made it worse.”

Thigpen said her granddaughter, and other students, were hit with a baton by officers multiple times after the student being tased sparked outrage among the teenagers.

“The sad thing is, all they did with the way they went about things is solidify in a lot of these kids’ brains the belief that the police are the enemy,” Thigpen said.

Garza echoed Thigpen’s opinion, calling the police altercation unacceptable.

“I don’t feel like a single thing that comes out of [the administration’s] mouth is genuine at this point,” Garza said. “Our kids spend a lot of time at school and they’re supposed to feel safe there, and it’s just really sad. … The way those kids were assaulted by the police is 100% unacceptable. We’re talking about kids here. Their brains are not fully developed. They’re still very immature.”

The Little Elm Facts website reported that Police Chief Rodney Harrison will review the use of force “with the assistance of an outside use of force expert.”

Going forward — a lack of faith

In the video message to parents, Cornelious and Little Elm ISD Superintendent Daniel Gallagher announced that the district also will conduct a review of the protest and a follow-up investigation into the alleged sexual misconduct incident that triggered the protest.

Alongside those investigations, the school district will also create an independent committee to review its sexual harassment reporting and investigation process, which it invited parents to apply to volunteer to be a part of.

For parents like Pippins, the school district is making good steps forward, she said.

“All the things that I wanted to see happen are actually happening,” Pippins said, adding that she plans to apply for the committee. “I hope this doesn’t get dropped. I think that our girls deserve that much to just be heard, they deserve to be able to report something that’s going on.”

Other parents like Rick Jones, a father of two and a Little Elm resident since 2008, added that although he hopes there will be more accountability and a promise to do better going forward, he’s wary of the start-up committee.

“I really am concerned it’s going to be [the committee] is just going to agree with whatever the administration wants to do. There might not be anyone there to stand up for victims, there might not be anyone there coming at it from a trauma-informed perspective,” Jones said.

Thigpen added that the school district has not been transparent about how it plans to select the committee and the lack of transparency is worrisome.

“Are you going to get parents from both sides of the issue? Are you going to get parents who are saying, ‘No, you’re wrong and this is why’? Are you going to select those who are standing behind what you did? Because that’s not going to fly,” Thigpen said.

The school district planned to hold a listening session at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the auditorium at Little Elm High School. Those hoping to speak at the meeting had to sign up for a time-slot online or in person.

“There needs to be a process improvement,” Thigpen said. “I don’t want to see something like this ever, ever, happen again. This is a black mark, not just on the school and the students, but the whole city.”

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