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Manatee school district defends not putting out alert after student was raped

MANATEE — Last Friday was the first time parents of students at Bayshore High and several other schools were warned by the Manatee County School District that a stranger who assaults young girls was at large.

The district waited 11 days after the Jan. 31 attack, until Feb. 11, the day after another assault occurred, to generate thousands of automated calls to parents at all the schools located near the reported assaults.

There was also no public warning from the Bradenton Police Department, which handled the Jan. 31 rape, until a 12-year-old girl was assaulted on Feb. 10.

A call to the Bradenton Police Department for a comment about the time gap was not immediately returned.

The rape suspect, who is described as a slender man in his 20s to 30s, about 6 feet tall, traveling on foot and wearing a hoodie, was still at large Tuesday morning despite an all-out hunt for him by deputies and officers from local agencies.

The man is suspected in three attacks — all during daylight hours — on Nov. 28, Jan. 31 and Feb. 10.

“We are hunting for him, but there is no news today,” Dave Bristow, a spokesman with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, said Tuesday morning.

The reason why a message was not sent out immediately by the school district on Jan. 31 is that, in this case, the district did not realize that it was linked to at least one other attack, said Margi Nanney, a spokeswoman with the Manatee County School District.

Parents are now learning that not every sexual assault automatically triggers warnings to them on Blackboard Connect, the district’s automated message machine.

Each case is different and the school district weighs the public’s right and need to know against the victim’s privacy and emotional health and law enforcement’s position on how media coverage and parent word of mouth will affect their case, Nanney said.

“There is a fine line between putting out an all-alert and letting law enforcement do their job to keep the sensitivity of the case intact,” Nanney said Tuesday.

“We work in concert with law enforcement,” she said.

Nanney said she is standing by the district’s decision not to put out the all-alert right away after the Jan. 31 attack.

“We have many instances that occur like this in a population of 43,000 students,” Nanney said. “It is not unusual to get reports and the decision on whether to go public is handled on an individual basis. Of course, if the perpetrator is one of our students that is a different game. But if our student is the victim, as in this case, our first priority is to provide counseling to the student.”

The linking of the cases, in the end, brought this case out into the open.

“If we had known the same person was doing this, that knowledge would have changed our response and law enforcement’s response,” Nanney said.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.

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