By LISA LEFF and GARANCE BURKE
SAN FRANCISCO — Police in the San Francisco suburb of Hercules responded aggressively when a transgender teenager showed up at his high school health center saying he had just been beaten and sexually assaulted in a school bathroom.
Civil rights advocates swung into action, too, noting that another transgender student had complained of being bullied at Hercules Middle/High School last fall. School district officials promised to redouble their efforts to address sexual harassment, intolerance and violence on their campuses.
But on Tuesday afternoon, the 15-year-old student who alleged the attack recanted, acknowledging during a follow-up interview with a detective that he had fabricated the whole tale, Hercules police said.
“We investigated this thing as a true crime. We went at it full force until we found out there was no crime,” said Connie Van Putten, a police department spokeswoman.
The reversal left open the possibility that the teen originally thought to be a victim could be charged with making a false criminal report, Van Putten said.
The student, who is biologically female but identifies as male, had told officers he was leaving a boy’s bathroom at the school on Monday morning when three other boys he did not know pushed him inside a large stall and attacked him.
Officers took his statement and opened an investigation that included a sexual assault examination. But officers could not substantiate certain elements of his statement, including the time frame, and he lacked any physical injuries to his head, face and hands, police said.
The student acknowledged he had made up the story during the follow-up interview, Van Putten said. She would not speculate on why he had lied.
The made-up account came as school districts across California are bringing their policies into compliance with a law that took effect Jan. 1 guaranteeing students the right to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match the gender with which they identify. Opponents of the law, who say it violates the privacy of students who may feel uncomfortable sharing facilities with classmates of the opposite biological sex, tried to overturn it at the ballot box but failed to gather enough signatures to qualify a referendum for the November election.
Advocates who fought to get the law through the Legislature last year said the fact that the Hercules teen’s story appeared to be untrue does not minimize the harassment that transgender students routinely face and the need for schools to work hard to address it.
“There is still an important piece of the story, which is that trans youth do face elevated levels of bullying and violence, including physical assaults at school,” said Carolyn Laub, executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network. “Even if this particular story isn’t true, the school’s response, to put in place plans for bringing the community together and addressing school safety and climate, is a good outcome.”
Since November, Hercules High has been dealing with the fallout from an on-campus fight involving another transgender student and three girls that was captured in a cellphone video that went viral. The transgender teenager, Jewlyes Gutierrez, a biological male who identifies as female, was charged with misdemeanor assault and said she had repeatedly complained about being harassed at school before she fought back.
The West Contra Costa Unified School District also has been responding to criticism over its handling of sexual harassment involving students, including sexual assaults, inappropriate touching and verbal taunts. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights launched an investigation of the district after a female student was gang-raped outside a homecoming dance at another high school in 2009, the year after another girl at a third high school was raped in a classroom by two classmates.
School board President Charles Ramsey said Tuesday that he’s glad another incident hasn’t compounded the district’s problems.
“We have to take the situation seriously because sexual assaults happen every day and they go unreported, so we can’t minimize or trivialize the issue because one situation was false,” he said.
Ben-David Barr, executive director of the Rainbow Community Center, which sponsors youth groups for gay and transgender youth in Contra Costa County, said that without further investigation, he was reluctant to believe the latest case had simply been invented and then recanted.
“We don’t know if he was pressured to recant, pressured by family, pressured by law enforcement,” Barr said.
Barr said he’s concerned a fictitious incident would make it more difficult for young people to be taken seriously when they have real problems. He added that the school district has significant work to do, and that “it’s not an environment where students feel safe.”
Mario Trujillo, spokesman for the West Contra Costa Unified School District, said school officials are less concerned with punishing the student than making sure he gets the support he needs to feel safe and comfortable at school.
“We recognize that life is complicated, and at the end of the day this is a request for help,” Trujillo said.