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“They’re trying to make me a monster,” said the girl. “They need to get away from me.”

This is what happens when a 9-year-old comes to pieces.

“It'll never stop, it'll never stop,” she shouted.

Her grandmother Charlotte had practically raised her. She had always known her as a vibrant, gifted girl. Now she couldn’t make sense of her.

Charlotte remembers when she began to change. Her granddaughter went to the Mallinckrodt Academy of Gifted Instruction Elementary School, in the St. Louis Public School District. But one day, she came home, “changed.”

“She’d be upset and go straight to bed, and get in bed and cover her head up,” Charlotte said.

It started happening day after day, until finally her granddaughter refused to move from her bed.

So Charlotte took her to Children’s Hospital, where a doctor and a social worker learned the cause-- her granddaughter was being sexually assaulted at school.

“They would get her in the mornings when she got off the bus,” Charlotte said. Another time it was “behind the basketball court.”

However, Charlotte says the perpetrators weren’t adults, but two 10-year-old classmates.

“Two boys with their hands down my granddaughter’s pants,” she said. “In that instant, they took away every ounce of childhood she had.”

Students sexually attacking students-- it’s something most of us associate with college students.

But the 5 On Your Side I-Team discovered that it’s also happening in middle and even elementary schools. Victims and victimizers can be as young as eight years old, and experts say it’s happening far more often than you’d think.

Some area parents say that when it happened to their kids, they were left in the dark.

Lacretia Springfield remembers when she found out about her daughter’s experience.

Lacretia Springfield sits down with 5 On Your Side's Mike Bush to talk about the experience of her young daughter being assaulted in elementary school.

“I begged her to tell me,” she says, referring to a teacher at Whiteside Elementary School in Belleville, Illinois.

Springfield was picking up her 8-year-old daughter when the instructor pulled her aside with tears in her eyes.

Springfield says the teacher told her to talk to her daughter because “something bad happened.”

Later, in a mother-to-daughter talk, that bad thing turned out to be a female classmate.

“She said the girl would put a tongue in her mouth and her hands in her pants,” said Springfield.

And not far away, Christicia Dowell’s 10-year-old daughter was telling a similar story about the same girl.

“She was scared. Her eyes went wide,” said Dowell. “And she said that the girl did kiss her and the girl did touch her down there. ‘Mom, she touched me down there.’”

It gets worse. Springfield claims that later on an official from Whiteside admitted there had been earlier incidents with other kids, and more incidents in which her daughter was abused.

Two parents told 5 On Your Side their children were sexually assaulted at Whiteside Elementary School and school officials didn't immediately notify them.

“That’s when I completely broke down, because I couldn’t believe he knew my daughter was sexually assaulted weeks ago and they didn’t call me.”

Springfield also claimed that the school didn’t call the police, so she did it.

Dr. Dorothy Espelage, an expert on child bullying and harassment and professor of psychology at the University of Florida, said schools often downplay or hide these types of problems.

“I’m sorry, but if you just put your hands down somebody’s pants, that out-right is sexual assault, and that is criminal behavior,” she said.

She also said that school districts are concerned about lawsuits.

“Schools are very concerned about litigation,” she says. “You never want to have your school’s name or district plastered in the paper.”

What school districts should do in these situations is unclear. Some say school districts should be forced to report all sex assaults to their state education agency, thereby putting it on the record. That is already the standard in 38 states, and many of their state education departments share that information with the public. However, Missouri and Illinois do not.

That’s why mothers like Springfield say it’s time for a change.

“When kids have head lice, you get a letter. Let parents know that they need to talk to their children to make sure this didn’t happen to them,” she said.

We contacted the Mallinckrodt school and the St. Louis Public School District, but we have yet to hear back. Whiteside School District did send us a written statement, saying that there was “an incident of inappropriate contact” and that the parents of all the students involved have been contacted. The statement, dated October 13, goes on to say that the district is cooperating with on-going investigations by law enforcement and children’s services.

Dear Mr. Bush,

Thank you for the opportunity to respond. As a journalist, I know that you are knowledgeable of the requirements of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Illinois School Student Records Act (ISSRA) which serve to protect student privacy. Because of these Acts, I am rather limited in what I can tell you. However, I can tell you that during the last week of SOAR, the school addressed an incident involving inappropriate contact between students. The SOAR director spoke with parents of all the students who were involved and took action to ensure that this would not occur again. I apologize that I can not be more specific regarding the incident nor the action that was taken.

On August 28, school administration was alerted that there may have been other incidents during the summer. The district is cooperating with DCFS and law enforcement in their investigation. Attached are two communications which were sent to our Whiteside parents.

DCFS has not yet concluded their investigation. Once the district has received the DCFS report, I may be able to provide more information. Certainly I do not want to provide any information in violation of FERPA or ISSRA, as doing so could hinder any action the district may deem necessary. Further, since the DCFS investigation is on-going, I must refrain from any comments that could infringe on their investigation.

Sincerely,
Peggy Burke

We also received a follow-up statement on October 26.

Mr. Bush,

I just wanted to provide you with a brief update. I was told yesterday by the DCFS investigator that she has completed her interviews and DCFS will be issuing a report soon. The investigator indicated that she found no evidence of any sexual abuse and nor any finding of inadequate supervision. I would ask that you refrain from referencing Whiteside School District in any report until such time that the DCFS report is issued.

Sincerely,

Peggy Burke

Superintendent

The Illinois Board of Education declined our request for an interview. The Missouri Division of Elementary and Secondary Education sent us a statement explaining that, “There are no state statutes or federal laws that call for Missouri to collect data” on sexual assault.

What can parents do? We spoke with Dr. Elizabeth Alderman, professor of pediatrics for the Children’s Hospital of Montefiore at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who gave us some things to look out for and what parents should expect.

Dr. Espelage had more to say on the subject of state monitoring of sexual assault and how schools handle these cases. As she explained to Mike Bush, they have a duty of care to their students under federal law.

Stay with 5 On Your Side as we continue to shed light on student sexual assault in St. Louis area schools.