Manatee schools waited to tell parents about assaults

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 man who assaults young girls is at large.

The district decided to wait from Jan. 31, when a 15-year-old girl was raped, 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 Feb. 10.

The suspect, a 20- to 30-year-old man whose image was captured on a surveillance camera, was still at large Tuesday night despite an all-out hunt for him by local deputies and officers.

The man is suspected in the rape case and two other attempted assaults -- all during daylight hours -- on Nov. 28, Jan. 31 and Feb. 10.

“We are hunting for him,” said Dave Bristow, a spokesman with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.

The school district did not send out a message immediately on Jan. 31 because school officials did not realize that there were two other related incidents, said Margi Nanney, a spokeswoman with the Manatee County School District.

Not every sexual assault automatically triggers warnings to parents on Blackboard Connect, the district’s automated message machine.

Each case is different, Nanney said, 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 word of mouth will impact their case.

Another factor in this particular case was that the rape did not occur on school property, Nanney said.

“The incident on Jan. 31 occurred quite some distance from the school and it was under investigation by law enforcement,” 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 stressed the school district works in concert with law enforcement.

“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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