An increasing rape culture?: Incidents in San Juan County, Utah, are sparking locals’ concern

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An easily pictured and positive stereotype of southeast Utah’s teenage population might include youths bursting with the physical health that comes from an active rural lifestyle and instilled with a respect for decency that comes from religious teachings rooted in Mormonism and fundamental Christian beliefs.

But this view, which certainly is based on reality, would include a gaping blind spot – what has been termed a “developing rape culture” by San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws, who recently made a presentation to the San Juan School Board about a disturbing trend of increasing sexual offenses involving high-school students there.

On Aug. 6, Laws provided the board information indicating a “sharp uptick” in student sexual assault cases being prosecuted by his office, and a nearly exponential increase over the past couple of decades.

In the past year, 38 of the 47 charged sex offenses handled by his office involved students of the district, Laws said, both as victims and alleged perpetrators, and female students were the victims in most of them.

“90 percent of the victims were perpetrated against by a fellow student,” his written report states, “and 76 percent of them were first approached by their perpetrators in a school setting.”

The offenses run the gamut from rape – eight cases brought during 2019 – to sexual harassment, such as being asked to pose nude for posting on social media, or being groped.

And, Laws stressed, this data must be considered in light of the fact that only about a fourth of such crimes are reported to law enforcement.

He said while details of the students’ cases couldn’t be divulged for privacy reasons, “from those interviews information about a developing rape culture among SJSD students can be seen.”

Over the years, sexual offenses reported to law enforcement in the county went from about four per year between 2000 and 2010, according to Laws’ presentation, to 19 per year during 2011 to 2018 and then to 21 last year, with the majority in Blanding and Monticello high schools.

Students’ naiveté and shame, and not knowing what constituted rape or other offenses, often caused them to remain silent, Laws observed in his report. Many of them had told friends or family but were reluctant to report offenses to law enforcement.

Additionally, he wrote, “offenders were highly manipulative. The perpetrators preyed on the victim’s lack of knowledge about consent in multiple cases to convince their victims that what had happened wasn’t rape.

“Offenders used religion to prevent victims from reporting,” he added, and “threatened to send nude pictures to retaliate or control the victims.”

Matthew Keyes, the Title IX coordinator for the district, called the information “shocking” and said it shouldn’t be tolerated, according to a story by Report for America member Kate Groetzinger published by KUER, an NPR radio affiliate. Keyes said his office was “eager to come to the table and help in any way, shape or form we can.”

Monte Wells, a former Monticello city councilman who has an online publication called The Petroglyph, told Groetzinger he had requested an investigation into school district policies in 2009 after his daughter was disciplined for defending a female friend against sexual harassment at school. Additionally, Wells wrote a lengthy article in The Petroglyph documenting his foiled attempts to get local authorities to address the problem and harshly criticizing the community for what he said is a prevalent “boys will be boys” attitude.

Wells recounted how, despite repeated attempts to bring attention to the seemingly intractable trend, local law enforcement and school officials managed to minimize the bad behavior of even grade-school kids who later committed more serious offenses. He gave the example of one youth in particular who was recently charged with rape and whom Wells termed “a serial rapist,” outlining a history of other alleged offenses.

That former Monticello High School student, 21-year-old Tyler Robert Draper of Springfield, Utah, was charged in June with the rape of a 16-year-old female in March.

The alleged victim said the suspect had grabbed her by the throat and “threw her around like a rag doll,” despite her efforts to get him to stop during an incident at Lloyd’s Lake, according to the report of San Juan County Sheriff Deputy Jay Begay. Draper was also charged with felony assault for allegedly choking the victim.

At the time of these alleged offenses, Draper was on pre-trial release for a number of other felonies, including assault, unlawful detention, trespass and witness tampering.

Laws told the school board he wasn’t coming to them just to dump the problem in their laps without offering some means of addressing it.

His suggestions included:

  • Information about a program – Empowering Women through Self Defense – sponsored by the sheriff ’s office that could be adapted to fit the needs of students.
  • Asking teachers to volunteer for training that would help them be more approachable and better prepared to help students who want to report incidents of sexual abuse/assault.
  • Creating a student committee to help teachers and staff to better understand the problems they are facing, such as the use of social media like Snapchat to publish nude pictures.

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From September 2020.