By Angela Weatherford
An Athens Middle School student is alleging she was attacked and beaten last week by 21 fellow students in response to a project for her history class regarding illegal immigration.
Melanie Bowers, a 13-year-old eighth grader, arrived at school last Monday, March 31, with her U.S. History project — an 8 1/2 x 11 “protest sign” — that reads, “If you love your nation, stop illegal immigration.”
Students were asked to create “protest signs” dealing with a past issue and a current one by history teacher Janet Skelton.
According to Bowers’ father, J.R. Bowers, Melanie was attacked in a hallway by a group of students on Friday because of the political message contained on the poster. Mr. Bowers said the attackers slammed her head into a brick wall and scraped her face down the side of the wall. The girl’s grandmother, Layne Wilhoite, told the Athens Review in a statement sent Monday that the group attempted to drag Melanie into a restroom and threatened to “rape and kill” her.
No teachers have come forward saying they witnessed the incident, according to Athens Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Fred Hayes.
After the incident, Mr. Bowers said his daughter told him she attempted to use an office phone to call him. Hayes said Assistant Principal Mark Castleberry looked her over and “did not see anything wrong with her.” Castleberry did not allow her to use the phone, and she eventually used her cell phone to inform her parents she had been attacked.
Melanie did not attend school Monday. Shera Bowers, her mother, said her daughter was checked out by a paramedic Saturday. She suffered a swollen face, various scratches and bruises.
“I’m upset that this happened to my daughter, and that she wasn’t allowed to call us,” Bowers said.
Hayes said the investigation into the alleged incident is ongoing.
He said Monday afternoon school officials were not aware of any allegations students threatened to rape the girl. The effort to identify those students is part of the ongoing investigation.
Mr. Bowers said his daughter identified the 21 students — 17 boys and four girls — by using a yearbook.
District police officers were on campus Monday as a measure of heightened security. District Police Chief Paul Reddic spent the day reviewing videos in an effort to catch a view of the alleged beating.
AMS Principal Louis DeRosa and Hayes acknowledge something happened to Melanie Bowers, but both have stopped short of saying she was assaulted. DeRosa says only a few students — rather than the 21 alleged by the Bowers — were involved.
“There was an incident in the hallway after lunch on Friday, April 4, between two or three students,” DeRosa said in a statement. “We have a camera system in the building. We are collecting information and statements from witnesses. This is all the information we have at this time.”
Hayes said the incident occurred between two cameras and in “a blind spot.”
“What they told me that they see is a group of students leaving an area,” he said, “and as they’re leaving they see two students turn around and look at what’s going on, but then they turn back around and keep on going. Typically what we have when we have a big fight is we have students who will run to an issue to see what’s going on. I’m not saying there was no disturbance. What I am saying is that we don’t know the extent of the disturbance at this point.”
He added that, based on his years in education, he thinks someone approached Melanie and said something inappropriate to “try to scare her.” He said if they didn’t hit her, they at least threatened to hit her.
When Melanie came to the office, Hayes said Castleberry took down information about the incident but refused to allow her to call home because he said it would “mess up the investigation.”
Hayes said Monday the district typically allows students to call their parents if they have requested to do so.
“We could have kept in a lot of problems if we would have allowed that to happen,” Hayes said of the decision to not let the student call her parents. “This was a student who was obviously distraught over a — whether she was jumped or not really doesn’t matter — she was distraught and she should have been allowed to call her parents.”
The Bowers family say they have contacted a lawyer and the FBI. A follow-up meeting between the family and school police officers was held Monday afternoon — a gathering that lasted two hours.
“There wasn’t really any new information,” Shera Bowers told the Review after the meeting. “(Chief Reddic) did say he was adamant about catching the people who did this.”
Several parents who contacted the Review Monday said they didn’t send their children to school on Monday because of threats posted on a Web site, MySpace, discussing the incident. Hayes said attendance levels did not appear to be abnormal.
Hayes also said the district will think twice about similar class projects in the future.
“I think that probably what we ought to look at is, if it’s a current issue we probably don’t need a protest poster made on that issue,” he said.