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I-Team: Tip warned Mehlville district of substitute teacher's sexual violence

Brandon Holbrook was charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl he met at a middle school six months after the district was warned.

Editor's note: This story contains descriptions of sexual abuse.

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — When Maura Benson saw the headline “Former St. Louis County substitute teacher charged with sex crimes,” she said she didn’t even have to read the story to know who the teacher was.

“I knew it was him,” she said of Brandon Holbrook. “I knew it. And that makes me sick to my stomach.”

In an exclusive interview, Benson, 21, told the I-Team she started dating Holbrook when she was a Mehlville High School senior and he was nine years older than her. During their relationship, she said Holbrook confided pedophiliac fantasies to her, verbally and physically abused her and ultimately raped her at his home in January 2021.

She reported the rape, abuse and her concerns about him working around children to the state’s Courage2Report system, which allows victims to make complaints anonymously and notifies police and school districts. She hoped it would stop him from working as a substitute teacher at the Mehlville School District.

But it didn’t.

Holbrook was charged with sex crimes in September involving a 14-year-old student he met while substituting at Bernard Middle School – six months after Benson reported him to the state.

In the mugshot Benson saw of Holbrook the day news of the charges broke, the shirt he was wearing caught her eye. She once wore it, too. 

Credit: KSDK

Ten days later, the 30-year-old died from a Fentanyl overdose at the St. Louis County jail following the charges.

His manner of death – whether a suicide, accident or homicide – remains undetermined, according to the St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Scott Rosenblum, who served as Holbrook's attorney, said his client was not a drug user and his family is conducting a private autopsy. 

"My client was planning to plead not guilty and we were planning to vigorously defend him against these allegations," Rosenblum said.

Now, the 14-year-old victim’s family is taking action, too, suing the school district, saying it kept Holbrook employed, putting their daughter at risk despite Benson’s allegations.

Benson is wondering why her decision to call the Courage2Report system failed to keep kids safe.

The I-Team has learned schools and police departments follow up with the Highway Patrol on less than half of calls that come in to the Courage2Report system.

“I'm so tired of feeling guilty for what someone else did to me,” Benson said.   

She said she’s going public with her story hoping to inspire other victims to come forward and to bring awareness to changes the Courage2Report system needs.

“I want to take my power back,” Benson said.

Meeting on a dating app

Benson had just turned 18 and began her senior year at Mehlville High School in August 2019 when Holbrook’s dating profile first caught her eye.

She said he was vague about his age, writing only, “older than 19.”

They started exchanging messages and eventually she learned he was nine years older than her.

“In the back of my mind, I was kind of thinking, ‘Well, why can't he date someone his own age?’” she said. “But I also kind of liked the excitement of it all, if I'm being honest, and I think he took full advantage of that.”

They started dating, seeing movies together and hanging out at his home.

Soon after, she said the abuse began.

“He made me feel like that was supposed to make me feel good, like making him feel good was supposed to make me feel good,” she said.

So did the terrifying confessions.

“The closer I got with him, the more he would reveal things of that nature, more like very pedophilic fantasies and him like almost wanting me to do things that were very much like of those fantasies,” she said.

Then, he showed her he got an acceptance letter to work as a substitute teacher for the Mehlville School District – the same district where she went to high school.

“It was disturbing to me,” she said.

Finding Courage2Report

By January 2021, one and a half years after meeting him, Benson said she’d had enough.

“He knew that I was kind of slipping out of his reach,” she said.

She said she went to his house one last time. That’s when she said he raped her.

“I was just so traumatized at that point that I was just trying to survive,” she said, wiping away tears.

She didn’t go to the police.

“Even though everybody says that's what you should do, my body had just been violated and I didn't want to have to show it to a complete stranger or have to go through a rape kit,” she said.

She blocked Holbrook from all of her social media accounts and from her phone.

Then, in October, Holbrook tried adding her back to his Snapchat account and accused her of vandalizing his car – something she said she did not do.

“Going to his house would be very traumatic for me, so I would never even go there,” she said. “I remember seeing his name and just feeling this pit of fear build up inside of me, just like terror, because I never wanted to associate with this person ever again.”

By that time, she was in college studying art education and working with 1-year-olds for her early childhood education studies.

“The more I worked with kids, the more I realize just how vulnerable they are and just how evil he was,” she said. “Somebody in that position has so much power. And to know that he had that position, even if it was just as a substitute, I knew he could take advantage of it.”

So she googled how to report what happened to her to the school district anonymously and found the state’s Courage2Report system.

“I thought about it and I was like, ‘I cannot sit here and just allow this person to work with children without at least trying to do something,’” she said.

RELATED: Former substitute teacher charged with statutory rape of 14-year-old in St. Louis County

Lack of requirements

Since it launched in May 2019, 2,138 tips just like Benson’s have come into the system.

The Missouri Highway Patrol runs it and has identified contacts at every one of the state's 3,000 schools. The patrol also tracks when emails to those districts bounce back as undeliverable due to staffing changes, and enters new contact information, according to spokesman Mike O'Connell.

School districts and police departments are asked to tell the Highway Patrol what they’ve done with the information within 30 days of a tip.

But, they don’t have to.

“Schools and law enforcement are not legally required to report their response to us, nor do we tell them how to respond,” according to a statement from the Missouri Highway Patrol. “We confirm they receive the information in the tip as sent to us.”

Courage2Report staff track whether the schools and police departments that get tips have checked the Courage2Report portal to make sure they received the information, and follow up if the portal has not been accessed.

Without being a requirement, the I-Team has learned the Courage2Report system has received follow-ups from schools and law enforcement agencies on 47% of the tips that have come in.

In Benson’s case, the St. Louis County police said they got the tip Nov. 16, 2021 and a detective contacted Benson the next day.

“The first thing they asked me was kind of like what my end goal was in reporting it, which looking back, I think it's really weird that that was like the first thing they asked me because I remember I said the same thing that I'm saying now, I just don't want him to be around children, I don't think he should work at a school,” she said.

The officer also told Benson the school district had taken action.

“The police officer told me that his contract had been terminated and that he was no longer to work for any of the schools, so that's what I deemed to be true,” she said.

He also told her to report her rape to the St. Louis city police because it happened at Holbrook’s home in the city.  

“I didn’t really want to go through with that, telling my story to yet another police officer when I have already just told it to a complete stranger,” she said.

So, she didn’t take it any further, believing he was no longer working around children.

But he did, for at least six more months after Benson called Courage2Report.

The school district confirmed he worked for them between February 2021 and May 2022.

RELATED: Man found dead in jail following accusations of statutory rape

Where the allegations went

In September, St. Louis County prosecutors charged Holbrook with statutory sodomy and rape.

Court documents allege the 30-year-old first met the victim while substitute teaching at Bernard Middle School in May 2022, and used school resources to find her address. Police said he assaulted her at least three times there in August.

That’s when Benson heard those headlines.

"Basically what exactly I was afraid of happened. That's exactly what I was afraid of," she said. "And that's exactly why I reported him. And that's exactly what he did. And I mean, looking back, I tried and did what I could to stop it, but they could have done more as well.” 

The I-Team asked St. Louis County police and school district leaders what they did with Benson’s report.

The school district said it couldn’t comment because it is part of pending litigation, but it did provide a copy of the letter that the superintendent sent to parents following Holbrook’s arrest as well as a copy of the school’s policy on how it handles Courage2Report tips.

The policy states:

“When a report is made, it is shared with district administrators and local law enforcement. All reports are taken seriously and are investigated by the appropriate agency. Depending on the nature of the report, sometimes law enforcement investigates and sometimes Mehlville School District staff investigate. Reports of incidents happening off campus or involving criminal activity, for example, would be investigated by the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction over the location where the alleged crime occurred.

The district takes action depending on the results of the investigation.”

In Benson’s case, the school district would not say whether it conducted its own investigation into her complaint, which she said not only include allegations about the rape and abuse, but also her concerns about him grooming and preying upon children. 

There was no police investigation because the St. Louis County Police Department does not investigate crimes that happen in the City of St. Louis. 

Benson said she chose not to report it to the city police department, because she didn’t think she had to.

She thought he could no longer work around children.

The St. Louis County Police Department also does not notify school districts of Courage2Report allegations, because the state’s system does that automatically, according to Sgt. Tracy Panus.

So there was no contact between the St. Louis County Police Department and Mehlville School District. 

Panus would not say whether the detective told Benson her alleged attacker was no longer allowed to work at the school, saying every conversation is confidential. Benson consented to allow the police department to share the conversation she had with the detective.

Holbrook dies in his cell

Ten days after Holbrook was first charged, Benson saw more headlines about him.

“Man found dead in jail cell following accusations of statutory rape.”

Benson said news of his death brought her some relief.

“He can't hurt anybody else now, but part of me is angry because I feel like it's an easy way out, but I also feel like I don't know if he would have gotten the punishment he deserved,” Benson said. 

The 14-year-old’s family is using Benson’s claims as part of their lawsuit against the school district.

“This is an exceptionally troubling case, and we look forward to pursuing justice for yet another child that was let down,” said their attorney, Grant Boyd. “In doing these cases on nearly a daily basis, I'm constantly finding myself surprised at the level at which people will go to jeopardize the safety of children.”

Benson said she is now involved in several advocacy and recovery organizations that help victims of sexual violence, including the Sexual Health Advocacy Group at Webster University and Alive St. Louis.

“I still feel like I could have done more,” she said. “But I am trying to forgive myself for that because I didn't do anything wrong."

"He did.”

That’s the headline she wants on her story.

Helplines / Hotlines

Safe Connections Crisis Helpline – 314.531.2003

St. Louis Regional Sexual Assault Hotline – 314.531.7273

Life Crisis-Suicide/Crisis Hotline – 314.647.4357

Kids Under Twenty One (KUTO) – 314.644.5886

Elder Abuse Hotline – 800.392.0210

Child Abuse Hotline – 800.392.3738

Domestic Violence and Rape Hotline – 800.392.0210

National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline – 1.866.331.9474

United Way of Greater St. Louis Information Line – 211

National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline – 1-888-373-7888

St. Louis Region Advocacy Services

ALIVE – 314.993.7080
Therapy for women, children and men; court advocacy

AWARE – 314.362.9273
Hospital Advocacy as well as court advocacy

Bridgeway Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Services – 1.877.946.6854
Advocacy for women; hospital advocacy

Kathy J. Weinman Shelter for Battered Women and Their Children  – 314.423.1117
Shelter services

The L.E.A.D. Institute – 573.445.5005
(Leadership through Education and Advocacy for the Deaf) Court advocacy; hospital advocacy; therapy; ASL fluency

Life Source Consultants – 314.524.0686
Court advocacy; spiritual counseling

Lydia’s House – 314.771.4411
Transitional housing; court advocacy; adult education

Redevelopment Opportunities for Women (ROW) – 314.588.8300
Economic education and advocacy; adult education

St. Martha’s Hall – 314.533.1313
Shelter services; court advocacy

SAWERAA – 314.435.3722 Main Office
(South Asian Women’s Empowerment Regional Association) Motel placement; court advocacy; support groups

Woman’s Place – 314.645.4848
Drop-in center; court advocacy; support groups

The Women’s Safe House – 314.772.4535
Shelter services; court advocacy

YWCA St. Louis Regional Sexual Assault Center – 314.726.6665
Therapy for women and men; hospital advocacy; court advocacy

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