Note: Because it is an ongoing investigation and trial and due to the fact that information has been presented before a Grand Jury, the Sweetwater Reporter could not receive verification on the situation from the local law enforcement entities that are involved in the matter. The following is an account from the perspective of the mother of the victim.
It is a mother's worst nightmare: discovering your child has been sexually abused at their own school. But local mother Fonda Balthrop recalls her harrowing story once again to help and warn parents against predators in the most common of places.
On March 6, 2011, an incident concerning her six year old daughter at the Highland school prompted Balthrop to go to the campus. Her daughter told her some things, leading Balthrop to believe more was going on.
After school that same day and some more inquiring from Balthrop, the six year old told her mother that she had been touched inappropriately at the school along with another sexual act by 17 year old Highland student Lucas Turner. It was later discovered that the encounters had been happening for some time and had taken place in the school cafeteria, gym, near a boys' restroom facility and even on a school bus.
Balthrop called the Nolan County Sheriff's Office and met with Sgt. Brock Carter, and she also involved the local chapter of BACA (Bikers Against Child Abuse) into the case. The day after, an interview between the child and the West Texas Children's Advocacy Center (WTCAC) took place on March 7.
Not only was her daughter interviewed by WTCAC, but Balthrop's five year old son was later questioned as well, as the young boy told his mother that he saw one of the instances occur. Enough evidence was collected to arrest Turner and he was indicted by a Grand Jury on March 22.
According to an article published by the Sweetwater Reporter on March 24, it stated that Turner "was indicted for indecency with a child by contact, a second degree felony. Court papers state that the child was younger than 17 years of age."
Over a month later, the mother is now awaiting trial for her daughter's alleged perpetrator — in which Balthrop says Turner has admitted to the crime. However, a conflict of interest arose on the court meeting held on Monday, May 9, resulting in a cancellation. Balthrop noted that the judge for the trial will now come from Big Spring.
But as she waits on the court, she notes that the process of hiring a lawyer in filing a suit against the Highland school district has been a tough one.
"There's not a lawyer around that will touch it," Balthrop states, as the lawyers are quick to mention the fact that because school districts have clauses that protect them, it is hard to file a case against them.
"I don't want their money," Balthrop insists. "I just want them to own up and get more supervision [in the school]," something she believes the school is greatly lacking.
Since the ordeal, Balthrop notes that her daughter now attends counseling to cope but the emotional toll has hit their family hard, obviously noting that everyone is having a hard time in overcoming the matter.
Balthrop says the son who witnessed one of the events reacts differently and would rather confront the situation and let it go, a contrast from his sister's reactions. "She's shut down, she doesn't play, she sits and stares at the walls, and now she's very mean toward everybody," says Balthrop. "In my opinion — unless something changes — she’s ruined for life."
But another aspect that has been hard on Balthrop and her family is the reactions and responses of the Highland school district. She says that once the incident came to light, she met with the superintendent of Highland, Guy Nelson, along with other school officials.
But Balthrop says that since the incident came to the school's attention, some faculty members have been mean to her daughter and treat her daughter very different — even going as far as calling their actions "abuse” — while still treating her son in the same manner as before.
"Everybody acts like it's okay." Balthrop adds, "It's like the school can get by with anything." She also feels that the school's operations are "more like business" and says that because of the their actions, staff changes should be made from the top in order for the school to start over.
On the other hand, Balthrop has a hint of reassurance at the school. She says that some of the older students are aware of the situation and that they pay attention and keep an eye on the younger kids, who Balthrop believes are unaware of what has happened.
Also a result of the school's actions, Balthrop says she now talks with a couple of school board members as well as a few parents who back and support her. Her biggest push toward change within the school is for more supervision on and around the campus, which initially came after the incident but has declined as the weeks pass.
"All the kids are dropped off together, and nobody watches nobody," she says of the lack of supervision and because of it, Balthrop even considers making a transfer because she isn't comfortable leaving her children there. But when the thought enters her mind, she counters it with the perspective, "It's not fair for me to have to remove my kids when the school doesn't want to do their job."
On the issue of supervision, however, Highland Superintendent Guy Nelson stated that the school has "very good procedures in place for monitoring over students", noting the school is a safe environment and deals with issues effectively.
But throughout the ordeal, thankfully, and even up until now, Balthrop has high praise for the law enforcement personnel and entities who are involved in her daughter's case.
A member of WTCAC attended the eventually-cancelled court hearing with Balthrop, citing those in the organization as "wonderful people". She credits Sergeant Carter as doing a great job, even acknowledging Balthrop outside of the situation as they both go through their everyday lives. She also praises District Attorney Ann Reed for her hard work as well.
But in retrospect, Balthrop admits she can look back and pinpoint the signs and actions that led to the shocking revelation, like her daughter complaining about pain or the physical signs like bruising or scrapes that she initially dismissed.
"You hear it happening, but I never dreamed it would happen to my own child, especially at school. I thought they were supposed to be safe," she recollects.
But at the end of the day, Balthrop offers a warning to parents so that they will never have to endure the hardships brought upon by the trauma.
"When they come home telling you stuff, be aware and pay more attention. My daughter may not be the only one, and he [Turner] may not be the last one."