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Parents speak out during Caldwell ISD board meeting following student arrests
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Parents speak out during Caldwell ISD board meeting following student arrests

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A capacity crowd gathered in the Caldwell school district’s board room Wednesday night with six people addressing the school board and administration about an incident that occurred on a volleyball bus trip last month.

The school board meeting is the first since four Caldwell High School students were arrested on felony charges of indecency with a child after a report by a another student to the Milam County Sheriff’s Office. So many people attended that not everyone was allowed inside the board room, with a crowd gathered under the awning of the boardroom trying to listen.

In a probable cause affidavit, a student alleges the four students exposed her by stripping her shoes, socks, shorts, spandex and underwear down to her shins during a bus ride back to Caldwell from a volleyball match against Little River-Academy on Sept. 21, stating the actions were intentional despite her repeatedly telling them to stop.

According to the affidavit, the student made the sexual assault report on the morning of Oct. 15. Although the school district is in Burleson County, the incident occurred in Milam County with the location listed in the affidavit as “ten to eight minutes up the road from the Dairy Queen in Cameron, TX on HWY 190.”

Jennifer Dalley spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, calling for the resignation of two Caldwell High School employees and a school board member, who she said cannot be unbiased because of their closeness with the incident and inaction.

“We also have a question for you, Mr. Peters,” she said, addressing Caldwell Superintendent Andrew Peters, who will be retiring next month. “In our code of conduct, it states that there may be a mandatory expulsion for someone who is charged with indecency with a child. Mr. Peters, you stated to KBTX that you didn’t feel that this warranted a mandatory expulsion. We as families and parents of our students that attend Caldwell ISD feel that you are failing our students. You are standing up for four girls who at this moment in time did something wrong. Our students at Caldwell do not feel safe in the hands of our educators today.”

Kim Cedidla, mother of one of the accused students, called out the “slander” and “witch hunt” in the community and the school district, saying district employees who are “stirring the social media pot” are violating the accused students’ privacy.

“This would be a great time for us all to reflect on our behavior,” she said. “I do not wish this on my worst enemy. This has been the hardest month of many lives, and these girls have endured threats to show up and attack us in our homes, slandered, character defamation and messages telling them to go kill themselves. Grown adults, peers, is this something we should be proud of? It has to stop. All of you experts, you weren’t there. None of us were. There were four adults on that bus; all of which I know would have intervened if someone were being assaulted.”

Krista Zwernemann said parents and community members are upset because of the “fear and humiliation” the victim felt, her emotional trauma, the lack of “appropriate punishment” for the accused students and the silence from district leaders.

“We are upset because right now it looks like Caldwell ISD does not know the difference between right and wrong,” she said. “Something has to be done; someone needs to step up and take action.”

Mason Hart, a Caldwell High School student, called for the accused students to be expelled.

“I understand that the school has already imposed consequences for these delinquents, but I and many other students believe that this is insufficient,” he said. “If you continue to act like this doesn’t exist, then we know that you are cowards who are not wanting to expel the girl because of her name, well, multiple women. So please for the safety and security of Caldwell ISD students and staff, I say that you should expel them so nothing like this happens again.”

Cedidla spoke about those calling for further action against the students, saying the four students “had the book thrown at them” and were suspended and then placed in the district’s alternative campus.

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Martha Rodriguez, a Caldwell parent, said she is upset by the silence from a district parents are supposed to trust with their students’ well-being while at school and when traveling to and from campuses and events.

“I did not expect the school to release names or details, but a simple message saying, ‘There was an incident that occurred on X date that involved students on X campus has been brought to our attention and an investigation is being held and appropriate consequences will be,’ but you guys were silent,” she said. “All I ask for is something to bring the incident to my attention and to assure me that it is being handled. When a student brought a gun to school, administration sent out a notice letting me know that it was being handled, and my student didn’t even go to the campus that was affected. So why now do you remain silent? Why was this incident where a child was assaulted by upperclassmen not reported on? I had to hear about this incident through the media, and I’m still waiting on the school to release some form of statement.”

Rodriguez directed part of her allotted four minutes to those saying the victim should “get over this” and people “need thicker skin.”

“Let me tell you, as a victim of child sexual assault, you do not get over it,” she said. “I was four when it happened to me, and now as a 32-year-old woman, I still get affected by it. There are some days, I can just not be happy, that I feel worthless and like broken goods. … It stays with you, and to say, ‘Get over it,’ is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Mendi S. James-Ofzcarzak addressed the community as a whole, calling for the social media “witch hunt” to end.

“Nobody deserves this,” she said. “The families do not deserve this. The family of who’s been bullied, they don’t even want this, y’all. They don’t want this for their friends and family. The family of the bullies, they’re in turmoil too, y’all. … I’m asking you to stop and think about what you’re doing, to show some grace, to show forgiveness. Fight the fight that you have to fight, but do it in a respectful manner.”

Per policy, the school board could not respond to any comments made during the public input portion of the meeting, but Board President William Foster assured the speakers they were all heard and would hold true to its mission of “serving our community by serving the district and each student.”

“I know we have all had many emotions the past weeks. As we sit and stand in this room tonight, we are all here because this is our community and we care,” he read from a written statement. “I knew many of you would be attending this meeting because this is a caring and loving community, and we are all hurting for the ones that are involved. … We’ve been feeling the same way some of you are feeling. Please know that our board policy will be followed.”

Later in the meeting, Boone Patterson, athletic director and head football coach, outlined some changes to the athletic handbook, including more specific language for disciplinary processes, multi-sport participation and academic standards. He also added a policy on social media expectations.

Board member Tripp Warren asked about any policy related to having external speakers to play music while on team trips and traveling to and from games.

Patterson said the topic of external speakers and music on buses falls under coaches’ policies and athletic department policy given directly to coaches and adults, not the student handbook.

All coaches must sign off on the policy, Peters said, stating there will be no external loud speakers on the buses. Music is allowed through the sound system on the bus, which is controlled by the driver, and students must use earbuds to listen to music.

“The students are expected to follow the student code of conduct on the bus, so that’s already in policy,” Patterson said. “As far as the environment that the adults allow to happen on the bus, that is an explicit written directive that all athletic department has received and signed off on and I believe we’re expanding it.”

The student who reported the assault said one of the students was a “lookout” for the other defendants and was playing music on external speakers “as loud as possible and sang as loud as she could” to cover up any sounds.

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