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Education

Parents Form Alliance To Challenge Pine-Richland Over Handling Of Sexual Assault Allegations

Pine Richland Baxter
Pine Richland
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Tom, Ana, and Jill Baxter speak before the Pine-Richland School Board.

Former Pine-Richland student Ana Baxter, 18, stood at a podium Monday night, her parents at her side with their hands on her shoulders. She told the Pine-Richland School Board during public comment that she wanted to make sure that what happened to her would not happen to another student.

“During my sophomore year, my entire world stopped. I was raped during school in the high school building,” she said. “I immediately told the school and police and had to go to the hospital for a rape kit exam which was awful. For a long time I couldn’t eat or sleep and I was afraid to leave my bedroom. After six months even through my parents' insistence, the school still hadn’t investigated my assault, so I did not feel safe to return to school.”

WESA is including Ana Baxter's name because she identified herself in a public meeting.

Baxter graduated from Pine-Richland with the help of a home tutor in 2020, but she never returned to the school.

“I’m taking back my life,” she said. “Attending graduation was hard but I did with my classmates.”

The district’s attorney, solicitor Emily Mueller, interrupted Ana Baxter twice to ask her to not name a district employee and to say that public comment was not an appropriate forum for criminal complaints. At one point Baxter’s microphone was muted.

In an unusual move, Mueller made a statement after public comment ended.

“We strongly disagree with some of the statements made tonight regarding allegations of assault and discrimination," she said.

“For privacy, confidentiality and other legal reasons we cannot go into detail except to say that both the district and law enforcement have worked extensively together and separately to investigate these allegations and all circumstances surrounding them timely, completely and in accordance with the law," she continued. "We have at all times been and remain fully committed to and engaged in providing a safe, healthy school environment for all students."

Still, Ana Baxter's parents have formed PROSPR Now — Protect Our Students In Pine Richland Now. Tom Baxter said they’ve received multiple reports from parents and students that “suggest a pattern of behavior by the district that trivializes sexual assault, intimidates victims from coming forward, and retaliates against them if they do.” The two launched the movement Monday as others lodged similar complaints during public comment.

Another parent, Heather Kisow, told the board Monday that her daughter had been repeatedly assaulted on a Pine-Richland school bus. When her daughter reported the assault, Kisow said, “in my opinion the district did not follow up with a proper Title IX investigation.”

Kisow said the district didn’t ask for names of witnesses and didn’t inform her of any sanctions against the offender. Both steps are required under Title IX, a federal civil-rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or education program that receives federal money.

Under the law, if a school knows or reasonably should know about possible sexual harassment or sexual violence, it is mandated to investigate and take appropriate actions to resolve the situation.

A former Pine-Richland board president, Laura Ohlund, testified Monday that the district knew of a former athlete who was arrested for sexually assaulting a student, but officials waited too long before reporting the misconduct.

The Baxters said they want to ensure that the culture at Pine-Richland is free of all forms of harassment. They’re asking others to share their experiences at prosprnow.org. Tom Baxter said Monday that PROSPR intends to submit complaints to the Pennsylvania State Department of Education’s Office of Chief Counsel, which investigates claims of educator and administrator misconduct.

Baxter said the group intends to file a petition to remove school board members with the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas because of “what has occurred under their watch.” He also demanded administrators, including the superintendent, resign or be removed by the school board.