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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

San Juan County Attorney Raises Concerns About 'A Developing Rape Culture' In Local Public Schools

a brick building that says san juan school district on it
Kate Groetzinger
The San Juan School District operates five high schools in San Juan County. Three are on the Navajo Nation. The District’s headquarters are in Blanding. ";

The San Juan County attorney’s office is sounding the alarm on what it calls “a developing rape culture” in the county’s public schools. 

San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws said his office has seen a sharp uptick in sexual assault cases among students in the past year. 

“That’s what caused us to kind of look at it,” Laws said. “And since then it’s become a passion project, because we can see there is a problem.”

The rate of sexual offenses reported to law enforcement went from four per year between 2000 and 2010 to 19 per year between 2011 and 2018, according to a presentation Laws gave the school board this week. The rate rose to 21 offenses in 2019. And 90% of the cases his office is currently investigating involve students in the San Juan School District. In nearly all of those cases, the alleged perpetrator is a student. 

“The information shared by Mr. Laws is shocking, and it shouldn’t be tolerated,” said Matthew Keyes, the Title IX coordinator for the district. “We are eager to come to the table and help in any way, shape or form we can.”

While cases occurred in four out of five high schools in the district, Laws said the majority of the ones in his report occurred in Blanding and Monticello. His office does not have jurisdiction on the Navajo Nation unless the incident involves all non-Navajo students. 

And not all of the cases reported in the past year are new. Laws said approximately 40% are “delayed reports,” some of which involve incidents going back multiple years. He said one victim who reported a rape last year may have paved the way for others to come forward.

“Word got around, because the communities are small, and I think that might have emboldened more people,” Laws said. “Especially where there’s a string of victims with one perpetrator.” 

Monticello resident Monte Wells said the issue of sexual misconduct in the school district is not new. He has two daughters, and the older one attended Monticello High School from 2008 to 2011. Wells requested a Title IX investigation into the school district in 2009. His complaint detailed an incident in which she was disciplined for physically defending a friend against sexual harassment at school.

“There were all kinds of sexual assaults and stuff,” Wells said. “People in the hall grabbing girls and shoving their heads in their crotch, just all kinds of inappropriate stuff that the school was ignoring.”

In response to the Title IX investigation, the Department of Education forced the district to revise its sexual harassment policy. But Wells said people in Monticello still discriminate against girls who report sexual harassment and assault. 

Laws also raised concerns about a hostile attitude toward assault victims in Monticello, citing a case he prosecuted in 2018 in which a crowd of 40 to 50 people showed up to a sentencing hearing for a male student convicted of rape. 

“But they were all there supporting the perpetrator. The only people there with the victim were her parents and my staff — that was it,” Laws said. “That’s not normal behavior.”

All of this adds up to a “rape culture,” according to Laws, who defines the term as victim blaming, normalizaton of sexual violence and objectification, and not taking victims’ reports seriously or discouraging them from coming forward. 

Laws said his office plans to mobilize resources like counselors and victim advocates to help educate the community about sexual assault and dispell the myth that victims are making false accusations.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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