A Demand for Justice in Norman OK After Three Students Were Raped and Bullied Out of School

Editor’s Note: This story contains descriptions of sexual assault, which may be triggering to some. All statements were given directly to the Flounce during interviews with advocates, students, and sources close to the victims, unless otherwise noted. Some details are from victims’ statements as published by author Anna Merlan at Jezebel.

On Monday, Nov 24, up to 1,000 students, parents, and citizens protested on the streets of Norman, OK outside of Norman High School. The protest was organized by #yesalldaughters, a group that was formed by a local feminist knitting circle only three weeks before. The demonstration demanded justice for three female students who, after being raped by a classmate in separate incidents, have been unable to return to school due to persistent and unchecked harassment and bullying.

Despite the school’s zero tolerance policy on bullying, the victims’ reports of the threats and harassment went unresolved by school officials. Certain administrators are accused of having responded with deliberate indifference.

The Norman High School administration was swift to suspend the accused rapist, 18-year-old Tristen Killman, because he shared a video of one of the assaults with other students. The school responded publicly to parents about the “rumors circulated on social media” in a letter two months later.

Students (with one exception) who were reported for harassment or who have shared the video have not been suspended, despite guidelines of the school’s student handbook. The three victims are still struggling to continue their educations in home school settings. In one case, a victim has transferred, with difficulty, to another school in the district.

The Norman rapes were  first reported by Jezebel, after a feminist knitting circle, who formed the advocacy group #yesalldaughters in response to these events, approached the media. Having exhausted other avenues to resolve the problem with the school, “We started to make some noise,” says Stacey Wright of the knitting circle. The victims and their parents told Jezebel their stories and asked the publication to investigate.

Wright says, “We’ve gotten some flak for going with Jezebel, but we don’t care. They got the story out there. And the reason we went with Jezebel is because they were the only people who responded to us. The mother of one of the victims wrote the local paper two months ago, and never even got a courtesy response.”

The knitting circle considered itself unprepared to execute a massive protest and publicly fight the school district on behalf of these victims, but knew that they had to do something. The group consists of women who are “feminist, forward thinking,” who meet on Wednesdays for some knitting and discussion of community.

“You know, girl talk,” Wright says. “A chance to get together and talk about all things related to being women.”

There is a feminist history behind women’s knitting circles and sewing circles. Women have sat around knitting and sewing while plotting the revolution or an overthrow of the patriarchy, as knitting was considered a feminine and non-threatening activity that provided a good cover for women’s organizations.

Stacey Wright studied women’s history, specifically women in Oklahoma. Her knitting group had some junior members, including her niece Danielle Brown. Brown approached the knitting circle a few days before their meeting, in the beginning of November.

“Her group of friends wanted to organize this protest, but they’d never done anything like that before and neither had we, frankly. The victim and her mom came to the knitting circle and we were just — we sat there in utter disbelief at how this was handled. And we knew that night that we had to do something. But we didn’t know what that was.”

The group of women conferred until the late hours of the night. “We started throwing things at the wall, all kinds of ideas.”

They launched a Facebook group that immediately received widespread attention and began plans for a student walk-out, followed by a day-long demonstration. The group is commited to advocating for the victims and demanding accountability, partially by sharing this story with the media.

***

The first victim the knitting circle met with is 16 years old, and is referred to as “Grace” in the original Jezebel article (names of the victims and NHS students we spoke to will be withheld). Killman took advantage of her when she was admittedly very drunk after a party. He took a quick video of the rape and shared it online.

Tristen Killman 2

 

Tristen Killman

 Recent photos of Tristen Killman from his Facebook page, which was deleted Nov 24

Killman also boasted to his friends about the rape. One of his friends, a young man who wishes to remain anonymous, knew that what he was hearing wasn’t right. In fact, he thought it was “heinous … the way he bragged about it.” He asked a few leading questions and recorded what became Killman’s confession. He then turned the audio over to the victim.

Illustrating the harsh environment in the school after the rape confession was released, this student told us, rather than being hailed as a hero, he’s afraid of being identified. “I’m worried about staying anonymous. Because [students] have been asking if that’s my voice on the recording.”

The transcript from that audio recording is chilling:

The anonymous friend says, “So she was down with it at first, and then, like, when you went to her …?”

Killman: “No, she wasn’t.”

Anonymous: “At all?”

Killman: “No.”

Anonymous: “At ALL?”

Killman: “She was asleep. I just, like, she was, like, incoherent. Like you could not talk to her at all. She was just, like … and I was like, get on your knees. And she did. And I just fucked the shit out of her, man.”

***

On the first day Grace returned to school after the rape, a male student came up to her in the hallway and said, “I hear you like being raped in the ass.” She smacked him with a heavy book bag, and her boyfriend, who was nearby, punched him. All three students were temporarily suspended.

This is the only case in which the school suspended one of the accused harassers, and the administration maintains that this was the only case of bullying that occurred as a result of the rape allegations – although the victims, their friends, families, and other students at Norman, tell quite a different story.

Stacey Wright says, “The [school] released a fact sheet last week that said there was only one bully related to these rapes, when we know this is just patently false. If there was only one incident, why then are there three victims who don’t go to school there anymore?”

After Killman’s taped confession was released on YouTube, his Facebook friend/relative Wes Hardin provided a prime example of victim blaming at its finest in his online comments:

(click image to enlarge)

Wes Harden how could she get on her knees 3

 

Wes harden defending Tristen

 

(Note: While Killman did drug one of his victims, the victim in this discussion was black-out drunk, not drugged.)

***

Four days after Grace reported her rape on September 22nd, a second 14-year-old victim, who is referred to as “Amber” in the Jezebel article, was drugged and raped by Killman. She met with him after he had been suspended for disseminating the video.

Killman showed the video to Amber, along with several other kids who were hanging out after a church group meeting. She said that she did not recognize that this was a video of an assault—she assumed Grace had consented because she could hear her “screaming.”

According to the victim and several sources, Amber said she had a headache, and was given a pill from an Advil bottle by Killman. One of these pills was also given to her girlfriend, and since they were with a group of kids at the time, Amber says this made her feel as if she were safe.

Killman also gave her a blunt, which made a suspicious crackling noise when she smoked it. She only took “a few” puffs and began to feel increasingly disoriented. She states that it did not occur to her that he had drugged her. Instead, she wondered why the pot was hitting her so hard.

Amber, heavily intoxicated, found herself alone with Killman at the end of the night. He insisted she come inside his house, where she was told to be quiet because his mother was asleep. She says that she passed out in his room and awoke while he was raping her, and began trying to thrash and scream and throw things off the bed to get his mother’s attention. Afterward, Killman drove her back to a friend’s house. She reportedly said to her friend, “He raped me,” but she has little recollection of the rest of that night.

The next day, Amber attempted to go to school despite still feeling the effects of the drugs she had been dosed with. She said she was in pain, was bleeding and “torn,” and could not walk very well. She confided in a friend, and they went to the student services office, where Amber spoke with the assistant principal—who has been identified by sources close to the victim as Shaina Kutt. Sources also say Ms. Kutt was the same school employee who had direct interaction with Grace about her rape by Killman four days before.

According to both the victim’s story as reported to Jezebel and people close to the victim as reported to the Flounce, Ms. Kutt didn’t want to hear about the rape. She handled the situation with the ultimate form of insensitivity—she refused to even listen to the story of the assault. She put her hand in the air and said something to the effect of, “Never mind that part.”

Outrageously, the only action taken by Ms. Kutt was to suspend Amber for 45 days for being intoxicated on school campus. Amber only served 10 days of her suspension with the stipulation that she attend drug prevention classes.

“This girl is obviously in distress, sitting there still drugged, just coming to the realization that she’d been assaulted the night before, and Ms. Kutt’s first words to that mother were, ‘She didn’t do anything she said she did last night, she took drugs with some boys,’” said our source, corroborated by Amber’s statements. “The nurse was in the room, checking her vitals, and the nurse just kept saying to the mother, ‘Take her to the hospital. Take her to the hospital.’ What Ms. Kutt said to the mother, it just smacks of such victim blaming, that THAT was what she thought was important to say to this mother.”

Stacey Wright says,

“I can’t believe that the school didn’t step back and look at the whole picture and try and figure out what’s the best, most sensitive action to take when this girl was just raped.”

Under mandatory reporting laws, Ms. Kutt should have called the police when she became aware that one of her students had been raped. Or even perhaps told the mother to take her daughter to the rape crisis center. When she put her hand in the air and said, “I don’t want to hear anymore,” it was at that point in the story that it was obvious, says our source, that she knew what had taken place. No one knows whether Ms. Kutt called the police that day.

Amber’s mother took her to the hospital. In two cases, SANE exams were performed on the victims.

Amber faced similar bullying and sexual harassment in school. Word had traveled fast, and she retreated to the school office. The administrator told her to go back to class, but Amber stated she was too afraid. She walked home.

***

Grace’s mother had exhausted all possibilities to deal civilly with the school following her daughter’s rape and subsequent harassment by students. She was told by Ms. Kutt that it was better if her daughter did not return to school until things “calmed down.” Being unprepared for this situation, the mother did not ask Ms. Kutt to put this in writing.

One of the main problems with requiring accountability for NHS employees is that no one knows whether they even filed any paperwork or reports.

Says Wright, “The victim that we first met with, her mother tried for two months to engage the school. Multiple times, she wanted to know what they were doing towards bullying education, and how they were implementing their anti-bullying policy. She reached out in a number of ways, and got nowhere with them.”

According to the NHS student handbook, victims of bullying or harassment are encouraged to fill out “Bully Behavior Reports” available in the student services office. When asking students if NHS has a history of problems with bullying, all students we spoke to said yes, Norman High has a bullying problem.

“I have filled out multiple reports, and they did nothing,” said one student.“I’ve been in the office so much over this that they are trying to get me to drop out.”

The student says she has no documentation of her interactions with school employees. “They have told me ‘You have no other options in school.’  Because I asked to do night school because school is REALLY stressful right now, and then they told me I might as well give up.  And when I reported they just kept telling me they are investigating it, every time I went in there for weeks.”

Students have identified assistant principal Kristy Benardello and secretary Jennifer Engles, in addition to Shaina Kutt, as the school employees who have directly told students to “go back to class” and “mind your own business” when reporting harassment incidents related to the assaults.

Wright’s daughter also had a problem with sexual harassment at NHS. “She was slapped on the butt by a kid, and she went right to the office with it because he made her uncomfortable multiple times. And we don’t know if they even documented it.”

It is worth noting that while the school claims to provide anti-bullying curriculum to the students, there are no health classes or sex education classes, or any curriculum about rape prevention, sexual harassment and consent.

We asked for a response from the school regarding whether or not they investigated these reports of bullying and harassment, and if they have disciplined any students for reported harassment or sharing the video. We also informed them that we would be using the name of the assistant principal, Ms. Kutt.

The school’s director of communications and community relations, Shelly Hickman, responded to us with this statement:

As you are aware the district has provided responses that it could make within the very limited legal boundaries of FERPA because these matters involve specific students.

It is counterproductive to operating a safe and academically challenging school for teachers and principals to not respond to bullying or threats to student safety. The district responds to reports of bullying when those reports are made and the district has a strong anti-bullying policy as well as programs to help students understand and respond to bullying.  Individual administrators respond to reports of bullying within the context of specific circumstances known to them or which are revealed by their investigation.

We are empathetic to the trauma these alleged rape victims have experienced and are committed to supporting them in any way we can. We also are committed to reviewing and strengthening our policies and procedures to ensure all of our students feel safe, secure and supported in their schools. There is not a teacher or principal in the Norman Public Schools who does not sincerely desire that for our students.

Beyond this, the district and its individual administrators can make no further response.

It’s hard to say how Norman public school employees should have handled accusations of rape any differently–the school did work with NPD on the rape that occurred off-campus. However, in a statement by Principal Scott Beck, they said that if necessary they could use the school’s security camera footage to disprove allegations that any problems occurred on campus.

Jezebel speculates that the school could have at least informed the students that by sharing the video of the rape, they were engaging in a criminal act — possession of child pornography.

 The third victim, who came forward a few weeks after #yesalldaughters publicized Grace’s story, claims she was raped by Killman in the school bathroom on campus. She is referred to as “Katie” in the Jezebel article.

Katie said that she did not report her rape to the school right away because she was Killman’s girlfriend at the time (in January). He pressured her into having sex in the school bathroom, but then against her will began to penetrate her anally. She states that she tried to get him to stop, said no, tried pushing him away. Afterward, she limped outside and sat down on the curb and cried. Killman threatened her, saying, “You’re not going to make me late for class.” She returned with him for their next period, a biology class.

Katie was later physically assaulted by another student, who pushed her face into the concrete floor. Killman texted her and threatened her, saying, “I made that happen.”

As of this weekend, when we spoke to Stacey Wright of the feminist knitting circle, a fourth victim has also come forward and told her story to #yesalldaughters. This victim is the earliest known case, her rape by Killman taking place over a year ago.

“Her mother had the foresight to pull her out of school before the semester started, because Tristen was still there,” says Wright.

***

Upon seeing 1,000 RSVPs for the demonstration on Facebook, superintendent Joe Siano and NHS staff became increasingly worried and attempted to persuade parents not to allow their kids to protest.

The demands of the protesters provide a clear idea of how the school SHOULD have reacted, according to the victims and their advocates, and how the school can work to prevent bullying and sexual harassment in the future.

yesalldaughters school front

List of demands:

  • School must fully accommodate the educational needs of the victims and take all necessary steps to ensure the victims feel welcome and safe at all times on school grounds.
  • School administration shall request a full investigation by law enforcement into the child pornography passed around school and into any teacher or administrator who failed to make mandatory reporting of child abuse as required by Oklahoma Statutes, Title 10, section 7103.
  • School shall create a new, full time position of Victims Advocate for students who report sexual assault, sexual harassment, or bullying who is responsible for overseeing all such reports and following up with the student, the student’s parents and law enforcement.
  • School shall create a notice of victims’ rights to be provided to any student who reports sexual assault, sexual harassment, physical assault, or bullying.
  • School shall prioritize the immediate implementation of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and bullying prevention education for students and faculty.
  • School shall promptly train all faculty on victim sensitivity and the appropriate response to reports of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and bullying.
  • School shall establish a committee comprised of 3 students, 3 parents, and 3 faculty to oversee the implementation of these demands and to review the programs and policies implemented every 90 days.

When this story was first released, Jezebel readers reacted in a number of ways that conveyed, “Fuck everything, set it all on fire.” It seemed impossible to find any good ethical humans who supported the victims in this story, with the exception of the feminist knitters and the one teenage boy who elicited and recorded Killman’s confession.

Since the protest, however, things seem to have become more positive, according to the  organizers, students and sources close to the victims. All agree that most students and the Norman community are now supportive of their cause. Only two or three friends of Killman continue to defend him. Students who were once slut-shaming these girls, saying “she had a reputation” and “looked like she was enjoying it,” are now sharing the #yesalldaughters links on social media.

The protest was also successful in finally obtaining a plan of action from Superintendent Joe Siano, which was published in the local paper. At first, the school categorically denied all wrongdoing and defended its anti-bullying policies. Now, the school has responded: “Following the Thanksgiving break, the district will expand a task force that’s been studying the implementation of a comprehensive, research-based sexual assault curriculum with student instruction.”

On November 27th, #yesalldaughters responded:

We are pleased to read that Norman Public Schools (NPS) Superintendent Siano agrees with our concerns, and that he’s laid out the District’s plan to implement swift and lasting change. It is our sincerest wish that we transform these tragic stories—coupled with the staggering number of horrific bullying and sexual harassment stories shared with us from the Norman community—into lasting positive change. We hope that NPS will not sweep this under the rug once the media frenzy wanes, and this remains a top priority in the days to come.

The organization did not consider Siano’s response a clear victory. While in the preliminary stages of planning prevention and response training for sexual harassment and assault in Oklahoma schools with a university team, #yesalldaughters urged the community to continue to voice concerns with U.S. Senate and House Representatives, with Governor Mary Fallin, with Janet Barresi, OK State Superintendent of Public Instruction at The Oklahoma State Department of Education, Oklahoma State Senate and House Representatives, and Dr. Siano’s office via phone calls, email, and/or letter writing. Contact information is available on the #yesalldaughters Facebook page.

Let them know that you support #YesAllDaughters’ effort to address the systemic failures that have come to light in recent weeks, that you support the implementation of state legislation that would further sexual harassment and assault education and create more extensive accountability, and that you demand a safer environment in our schools.

Wright remains understandably wary of the school’s late promise to introduce this task force. “The problem is that they’ve been talking about implementing these changes since last year, when it comes up or the media gets wind of it, but they really haven’t followed through at all. Part of what we’re planning on doing is holding their feet to the fire until they implement the changes on the bullying and the changes on sexual harassment … we’re not sure at this point if they’re actually going to implement it or if they’re just saying that to pacify us.”

After the story broke on Jezebel and other sites last week, #yesalldaughters was asked by many people whether they would accept donations, or if there was any way for the public to become involved in helping these girls financially–or emotionally, through writing letters.

Not sure how to handle money or publicity at that point, the advocates went to Grace, the very first victim whose cause they adopted. Grace and her mother had been fighting the school and its apathy for two months without any assistance. Grace said that she wanted two things to happen—to start a college fund for each of the girls who were raped and bullied out of school, and to set up a nonprofit organization called #yesalldaughters.

Right now, you can donate to the college fund for the victims via PayPal to the account: yesalldaughters@gmail.com.

For those wishing to write to and support the victims directly, the mailing address is:

#YesAllDaughters

c/o Elton Jenkins

115 S Peters Ave

Norman, OK 73069

***

This is a story that needs all the media coverage it can get; it was too easily blown from the news cycle last week after the Ferguson ruling. Norman is not a small town, and is the most liberal district in Oklahoma. Yet some of its public school employees were incapable of responding to the assaults and harassment of teen girls with sensitivity and concern. And many students seemed unaware of what rape looks like when they saw the video and concluded that the girl was complicit because she was making noise.

Under Title IX, public schools are required to provide a safe educational environment for all students. Teachers and staff are not allowed to dissuade any student from continuing her education due to sex-based discrimination or harassment.

These young students are now on the front lines of a war against rape culture, learning far more about being intelligent, proactive, compassionate citizens as they walked out of the school where their rights were ignored, leaving those empty classrooms to speak an inescapable truth. The students at NHS are now mostly unified in their support of these victims, and in holding the school accountable to its anti-bullying policies, because a group of concerned women refused to shut up. The lesson is one that high schools don’t want to teach–that authority figures don’t always have the right answers, and shouldn’t always be deferred to.

Says Wright, “It really took this movement and us really pushing hard to get these students to understand that these awful things did happen, that she didn’t ‘ask for it,’ and that the school and the students failed her when she tried to come back to school.”

Change begins when we do one simple thing for rape victims—believe them.


Update: Tristen Killman was arrested on Tuesday, Dec 2. He was charged with two felony counts of rape in the first degree, bail set at $250,000. The DA says an investigation into other charges is still ongoing. Our sources in Norman tell us that the reason police did not arrest him right away was due to NPD’s effort to carefully investigate and collect plenty of evidence so that Killman could be charged to the fullest extent of the law.

 

Rebecca Chance
Rebecca Chance is a writer and editor living in New York, often referred to as the "dour voice of gloom." Email rebecca@theflounce.com (for a good time) or for more appropriate reasons, like pitching an article, whether it's about irreverent pop culture or a damn serious social issue.