Rape victim
Taylor, 18, who was raped by a classmate before her senior year of high school, in Niagara. The case jolted a working-class town, prompting a walkout by students and a debate over whether school officials are equipped to address sexual assault. Image Credit: NYT

Niagara, New York: She saw him when she got off the school bus, she recalled. She noticed him glaring at her from the doorway during theater class and track practice. Some days, he would walk so close to her in the corridors that their shoulders almost touched. She felt disgusted, she said, and then frightened.

For nine months, the girl said, she could not escape Elias Dowdy, a fellow senior at her upstate New York high school who had raped her in his bedroom.

The girl, Taylor, had obtained an order of protection that prohibited Dowdy from coming near her at home or at a job while the criminal case against him proceeded. But the order did not apply at Niagara Wheatfield High School, where Dowdy, a star lacrosse player, roamed freely while he waited for his court date.

The school system's handling of the rape charges against Dowdy jolted Niagara, a rural, working-class town outside Buffalo, touching off a fierce debate over whether high school administrators are equipped to address what some experts say is an epidemic of sexual misconduct and assaults by teenagers across the nation.

Taylor just barely graduated in June and Dowdy was eventually expelled from the school, but the questions about the case continue to roil this community into the new school year.

Niagara Wheatfield High School's principal, who was placed on administrative leave in June over his handling of Taylor's case, formally resigned Wednesday.

The school district has yet to release findings of an investigation that it ordered into how Taylor was treated.

Extensive procedures

Universities and colleges in the United States have developed extensive procedures for handling sexual abuse among students, although the rules have been criticized by victims' advocates and those who believe the rights of the accused are not being protected.

But thousands of secondary schools across the country appear to be far less prepared, education experts said.

Such cases fall under Title IX, the federal law that prevents sex discrimination in education. But the rules for dealing with sexual misconduct and assault in secondary schools are often not clear - if they exist at all - leaving victims to feel powerless and educators to wonder about the proper steps to take, the experts said.

New York state law requires schools to create policies for handling sexual misconduct and assault, and to open investigations that must be completed promptly after incidents are reported.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it had found that 7.4% of high school students reported having been "physically forced to have sexual intercourse when they did not want to." (The split was 11.3% of female students and 3.5% of male students.)

Last month, federal education officials ordered the Chicago public school system to overhaul the way it deals with sexual harassment and violence, citing "widespread" failures to respond to complaints of sexual misconduct and assault by students and staff members.

The federal officials detailed cases in which the Chicago district failed to support students who had been groped, grabbed and fondled by peers and failed to take action against adults who engaged in misconduct - including sexual relations - with students.


Even those who were unhappy with how Niagara Wheatfield officials handled Taylor's case acknowledged the challenges that such allegations present. For several months, Dowdy was charged but not convicted, and thus entitled to a presumption of innocence and the right to a high school education, they said.

Still, Taylor's case offers more evidence that school districts often seem to be stumbling in their approach to sexual abuse among students.

Even after Dowdy pleaded guilty to third-degree rape in May, he was allowed to remain in school and assured that he could attend prom and graduation, Taylor's mother said.

It took a week from when he entered his plea, after the school district had come under intense criticism from Taylor, her family, students and parents, for the school to expel him.

Taylor said she was deeply shaken by what happened during her senior year at Niagara Wheatfield High School, which has about 1,200 students. She said there were days when she could not bring herself to go to school because she knew that Dowdy would be there.

"I tried to go and then I'd just stop and look at myself and then go back upstairs," Taylor, now 18, said, her voice breaking during an interview at her grandfather's home, about 9 miles from Niagara.

"I didn't want a yearbook," she said. "I wanted to erase everything."

Taylor agreed to be interviewed on the condition that her last name not be used.

Leslie Camp, Taylor's mother, who has a different last name, said Taylor had "died a little every day."

"She is slowly, very slowly, making very small steps and coming back to us," Camp said. "But she's been gone for a long time."

Daniel G. Ljiljanich, the superintendent of the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District, said in a statement that Taylor's case had been "very challenging" and that the district had to "let the judicial system take its course" and assume Dowdy's innocence until he pleaded guilty.

"We did try to take steps to minimize the students' contact together," Ljiljanich said. "But as we only have one high school and the court's proceedings were still ongoing, we were not in a position to bar the accused from attending school."

Guilty plea

Dowdy entered his guilty plea on May 23, and Camp said she notified the school about it the next day.

Ljiljanich said in his statement that Dowdy had been expelled "when the court determined" that he was guilty.

But, according to the school district's website, the expulsion did not happen until May 31 - two days after Camp posted a Facebook message critical of the school's response.

On June 6, Michael Mann, the Niagara Wheatfield principal, was placed on administrative leave pending the findings of an independent investigation. He resigned Wednesday, though the findings have yet to be made public.

Mann did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails seeking comment. The acting principal, Jeffrey White, referred questions to Ljiljanich.

Under Title IX, the high school should have started an independent investigation into Taylor's case as soon as her mother notified administrators that Dowdy had been charged, regardless of whether there was an active criminal inquiry, education experts said.

The school should have also taken steps to address possible threats to Taylor by changing class schedules, assigning a school employee to monitor Dowdy to ensure that he and Taylor did not cross paths, or having an employee escort her to class, the experts said.

If such steps failed to keep her safe, they said, the school should have adopted more stringent measures, like having Dowdy take classes online or be home schooled.

Shiwali Patel, director of Justice for Student Survivors and senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center in Washington, said the Niagara Wheatfield district's response was not surprising.

"This is a pretty unfortunately widespread issue of schools not taking the steps they are supposed to under the law," Patel said.

Bill Howe, the former state Title IX coordinator for Connecticut, said that in his 17 years visiting districts to train employees, he regularly encountered officials who had little understanding of the requirements under the law.

"What most likely happened in this school is typical of many schools - no training, poor training, or they might have a policy but it's not fully explained," Howe said.

Taylor's rape occurred in May 2018, after Dowdy had invited her to his home. They went to his bedroom, where Dowdy locked the door and raised the volume on the television, according to Taylor's statement to the police.

"He pulled me on to the bed next to him," she said in the statement. "He started wrestling with me. He then pulled off my pants and my underwear."

First-degree rape

In his statement to police, Dowdy recounted the incident differently. He acknowledged having sex with Taylor, but said, "I don't remember her saying no or pushing me off."

Dowdy, who declined to be interviewed, was charged with first-degree rape and released on bail. A judge issued an order of protection, and for six months, he had to stay away from Taylor. But the order only specified home and business, not school.

Camp said she met with Mann, the principal, in August 2018 and gave him a copy of the order of protection. She said she showed Mann text messages that Dowdy and Taylor had exchanged in which Dowdy apologized for the rape.

"He told me that Eli had a right to an education," Camp said, referring to Dowdy, "so he would be permitted to attend school right alongside my daughter and the rest of the students."

Camp said Mann had assured her that Dowdy would not go anywhere near Taylor.

By May, Camp said she had felt "compelled to post on Facebook my disgust for the entire year from the district."


Her Facebook post touched off an avalanche of comments. Days later, Niagara Wheatfield High School students organized a walkout to protest how the school had handled the case and to demand Dowdy's expulsion.

Students held signs reading "End of rape culture, even if it means losing a student," and "Student Safety > School Reputation."

In a video of the event, Mann, the principal, can be seen walking toward a group of students and telling them that the gathering "looks more like a party than a peaceful protest." Several students were suspended for participating in the walkout.

On a September evening, Taylor sat on a recliner at her grandfather's house recalling her senior year.

Whenever she talked about cheerleading or math class, her tone was confident. When Dowdy's name and the rape came up, she became almost inaudible.

Taylor had plans to enlist in the Air Force after graduating from high school, but for now at least, she said, her life is on pause. She plans to stay at home for as long as is necessary to recover.

"There are ups and downs," she said, "but I will reach there at my own pace."