TOPICS > Politics

Teen’s Rape Leaves California Community Stunned

November 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Spencer Michels reports from Richmond, Calif., where a teen girl was gang raped while dozens of people looked on without offering help.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: the fallout in one California community from a violent crime that has left many residents stunned. “NewsHour” correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

SPENCER MICHELS: Residents and officials in Richmond, California, near San Francisco, are trying to figure out how to respond to the gang rape of a 15-year-old high school girl, watched by as many as 20 bystanders who didn’t even report it.

The October 24 rape, which recalled other cases where witnesses to crime did nothing, has brought unwelcome attention on the town and has raised a lot of questions about how the community sees itself, and how it wants to move forward. So far, six men, ranging in age from 15 to 21, have been charged in connection with the crime.

It wasn’t just the horrific gang rape that drew attention; it was all the witnesses who did nothing. Rhonda James is director of the local Community Violence Solutions and the Rape Crisis Center.

RHONDA JAMES, executive director, Community Violence Solutions: This attack went on for two-and-a-half-hours — two-and-a-half-hours. There was an opportunity, there were hundreds of opportunities to stop it. The participants and the so-called bystanders were not interested in stopping it. People were actually jeering, filming, participating from the sidelines.

SPENCER MICHELS: There are no charges being sought against the bystanders, because California law doesn’t make that a crime. The high school sophomore left the Saturday night dance in the school gym early, and ended up in an unlighted courtyard, where she reportedly was drinking alcohol.

FROGY GONZALEZ, student: To me it’s no surprise, like, out of Richmond. It’s not a surprise to me. You know, I have living here for like nine years. It was one girl and then it was a lot of guys, and then it involved either — I don’t know from what. They told me it was drinking, so they were probably intoxicated.

SPENCER MICHELS: Frogy Gonzalez attends an alternative high school on the Richmond High campus, and says he understands why no one called for help.

FROGY GONZALEZ: They don’t want to be snitches, you know, and severe consequences for snitching out here.

SPENCER MICHELS: How do you change something like this?

FROGY GONZALEZ: How do you change…

SPENCER MICHELS: Or is there a way?

FROGY GONZALEZ: There’s no way to change.

A broader problem

SPENCER MICHELS: Some changes have already been made. Lights have since been installed in the courtyard, and security is being tightened. But the problem goes beyond better lighting. It's an attitude that makes parents and residents, like those at this community meeting, wring their hands.

MAN: It's an epidemic. It's Richmond. It's a virus to this community. It's like AIDS.

SPENCER MICHELS: Richmond is a largely poor and minority city of 120,000 with a high unemployment rate and a high crime rate. At rallies and meetings in the wake of the rape, residents were quick to acknowledge the longstanding problems.

NANCY IVEY, assistant principal, Richmond High School: Richmond is one of the most violent cities in California, and gangs try to claim corners and schools and lives here.

SPENCER MICHELS: But while the town and the high school are concerned about crime, they are also worried about their image.

STUDENT: They think we're animals.

SPENCER MICHELS: They think we're animals?

STUDENT: Yes.

SPENCER MICHELS: And?

STUDENT: We have gotten letters from, like, down South, from south California. They're like, are we a community of animals or people? I mean, they think that we're just bad. But they don't know the positive stuff about us.

SPENCER MICHELS: And what's the positive stuff?

STUDENT: We got the highest scores.

Building character

SPENCER MICHELS: Richmond High has in fact improved its test scores. But the how the town is portrayed still bothers school officials and police. Chief Chris Magnus says incidents like the gang rape are not confined to poor cities like Richmond.

CHRIS MAGNUS, police chief, Richmond, California: The statistics from the FBI show that, you know, rapes occur on an ongoing basis every single day in every single community. I think what we can do, though, is learn from this. We can recommit to educating young people, particularly young women, about how to protect themselves and make good decisions. We can educate young men about how to better respect women that they have contact with.

SPENCER MICHELS: The behavior of the young men committing the crime and those watching it and not stopping it was not about sexuality, but about power and control, says the Rape Crisis Center's Rhonda James.

RHONDA JAMES: A group of predominantly males, with a predominantly unchecked male misunderstanding of power and control, I mean, the classic, you know, political analysis, who have decided that this particular person wasn't a person, and that the activities that they wanted to do were OK to do in front of one another.

SPENCER MICHELS: She says Richmond's young men need early emotional education, from day one.

RHONDA JAMES: This community needs to be surrounded with absolute compassion around what it takes for young men to be men. Women can't prevent this. Men have to speak up, and compassionate, strong men have to talk to other young men.

SPENCER MICHELS: That kind of compassion can start in school, with what superintendent Bruce Harter calls character development programs, programs he is instituting.

BRUCE HARTER, superintendent, West Contra Costa Unified School District: The character traits that we think are so important, in terms of civility, in terms of citizenship, in terms of responsibility, I mean, really the -- in terms of honesty, respect for our humankind. Those are the things that were clearly missing in these young men who so violated this young woman, because they didn't have the character traits that we certainly need in all our young people.

SPENCER MICHELS: School board member Tony Thurmond is also concerned about the bystanders.

TONY THURMOND, school board member: Make sure that people understand that it is not OK to sit back when someone is being hurt, and not -- not speak up and speak out against that.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Reverend Andre Shumake, who heads a Richmond ministers association, was more specific in calling for a local attack on the problem.

REV. ANDRE SHUMAKE, Richmond Improvement Association: We're calling on 100 volunteers to come forth. We believe that, if we can have a presence on campus during the lunch hour, in the classroom, that that would help curb some of the negative behavior.

Students struggle

SPENCER MICHELS: Meanwhile, on campus, students, like Magnolia Lopez, are trying to make sense of what actually took place.

Were you at the dance?

MAGNOLIA LOPEZ, Student: Yes, I was at the dance.

SPENCER MICHELS: So, was it -- was it rough? Were a lot of people drinking? What was it like?

STUDENT: No.

MAGNOLIA LOPEZ: No. Nobody was drinking. Everybody was just dancing and having fun, like, basically, like...

SPENCER MICHELS: Really?

STUDENT: Yes, I was having fun.

MAGNOLIA LOPEZ: The dance was up in the -- in the gym. She had no business over there either. I mean, I'm not blaming her to get raped, but because nobody deserves it, but she had no business over there. Like, she was -- like, everybody was safe over there up in the dance.

SPENCER MICHELS: Adults and teenagers continue to struggle with how to bring this beleaguered town together, not only to rescue its image, but to make sure violent incidents like the rape don't reoccur. At this vigil, the victim's pastor read a statement from the young girl, who has not been publicly identified.

REV. JAMES WHEELER, pastor: Violence is always a wrong choice. We realize people are angry about this, but let the anger cause change.

SPENCER MICHELS: Community leaders say they want that change to really happen. While the community tries to cope, police continue their hunt for participants in the rape.