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Twice a Victim | Confidential documents show DMPS denied transfers for alleged victims of rape, assault and bullying

Local 5 discovered documents published to Des Moines Public Schools' website two weeks ago, which were removed after the district cited a privacy setting error.

Rachel Droze, Zach Sommers, Ryan Scott, Hollie Knepper, Elias Johnson, Stephanie Angleson

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Published: 5:54 PM CST February 11, 2021
Updated: 7:45 PM CST February 11, 2021

Just two weeks ago, Local 5's Rachel Droze received a tip that Des Moines Public Schools (DMPS) accidentally published students' confidential information on its website. 

Local 5 initially found seven documents on the website that included names and descriptions of students requesting transfers to different school districts. Some of the descriptions identified bullying, assault and even one rape victim by name.

The tip came from Alan Ostergren, president of The Kirkwood Institute, a nonprofit focused on public interest legislation. He found the documents while researching DMPS's open enrollment policy.  

Ostergren, who is also an attorney, said publishing the documents online violates state and federal law

DMPS spokesman Phil Roeder said publishing the documents was a mistake, telling Local 5 a privacy setting was "inadvertently changed" in February 2020 causing the documents to become publicly viewable. 

The documents were removed 30 minutes after Local 5 notified the district.

Local 5 found dozens of denied open enrollment requests on the district's website. Some of the requests listed health and safety reasons for kids wanting to transfer out of the district. 

In order to protect the identities of the students, Local 5 has changed the names of parents interviewed in this story.

Christine tried transferring her son out of DMPS in 2019. 

"His grades went from straight A's to F's," Christine said. "My child was self-harming himself with razor blades." 

A doctor recommended Christine's son move to a smaller school to help with his anxiety.

"He just couldn't handle the anxiety. There were just too many kids, too many situations," Christine said. "They offered to have him go to another middle school within the district, but it was our responsibility to get him there. And I said me and my husband both leave at 6 a.m. We don't have the means to get him to another middle school."

That's when Christine said she realized DMPS wasn't going to let her son go. 

"She said, 'It doesn't matter if you have a doctor's note or not. We're not releasing him,'" Christine said. "We finally just had to build a house and move out of the district. That's the only way we could get out." 

Christine isn't alone. Eileen, another mom, told Local 5 her child was being severely harassed. 

"I felt like they failed her," Eileen said. "When I didn't get a response back immediately within five days, I packed everybody up and we moved." 

"These kids that were harassing her even came to our home," Eileen said. 

Another mom, who Local 5 is referring to as Samantha, said she started paying for private school for her child.

"How far is this little girl's anger going to go towards my daughter? I don't know what happened after I pressed charges," Samantha said. 

Samantha said her daughter was afraid to go to school because she had been assaulted and was being bullied.

"She was actually being told at school that if she went back to school she was going to, she was going to get out again," Samantha said. 

Samantha is still working to get her daughter out, even requesting it again for high school. 

"I'm requesting it again because, how safe is she?" Samantha said. 

If her daughter isn't approved, Samantha said her family will have to figure out how to pay for her high school education, which totals between $8,000 to $12,000 per year.

Not everyone is able to enroll in a private school. 

Robert and Ashley requested to move their son, a third-grader, to a different district because he was suffering from severe anxiety, stress, nightmares and panic attacks. 

"The anxiety was so bad for him that he'd wake up knowing he had to go to school and throw up," Robert said. 

"It's heart-wrenching to drive your kid to school and see the tears coming from their eyes and to hear the panic in their voice and say, 'I have a stomach ache. I can't go,' and know exactly why he has that stomach ache and still having told him, 'I need you to try to go to school. I need you to try to do this,'" Ashley said. 

Robert and Ashley said the depression and anxiety their son experiences are a direct result of when another student allegedly choked him in first grade.

"He was telling a kid to be quiet. And because he was going to get their table group in trouble. And that's why the kid choked him," Robert said.

According to records, DMPS denied their request to transfer because the school has "not been notified about any concerns" and "The teacher who witnessed the confrontation did not see the student choke" their son. 

But the document doesn't match the story Robert and Ashley heard from the teacher.

"Even what it says that the teacher said she didn't see anything. That's not what she told us and that's not what she told [him]," Ashley said. 

In fact, the first time Robert and Ashley heard about the documents and reasons for the denied request was during a phone conversation with Local 5's Rachel Droze. 

"We never got a denial letter or anything stating what you had read for the denial," Ashley said. "We never received any of that." 

Local 5 spoke with eight families whose open enrollment requests were denied. 

All were told DMPS can accommodate their request, but almost all the parents Local 5 spoke to disagreed with that conclusion.

Local 5 has reached out to DMPS to request interviews with Supt. Thomas Ahart to ask how this happened and to learn more about the district's open enrollment process. 

Instead, the district has sent statements through email.

Local 5 discovered more names on documents that appear to violate privacy laws during this investigation. More information will be made available as Local 5 learns more.