Unruly schoolboys or sex offenders?
Susan Goldsmith, The Oregonian, July 22, 2007
The two boys tore down the hall of Patton Middle School after lunch, swatting the bottoms of girls as they ran -- what some kids later said was a common form of greeting.
But bottom-slapping is against policy in McMinnville Public Schools. So a teacher's aide sent the gawky seventh-graders to the office, where the vice principal and a police officer stationed at the school soon interrogated them.
After hours of interviews with students the day of the February incident, the officer read the boys their Miranda rights and hauled them off in handcuffs to juvenile jail, where they spent the next five days.
Now, Cory Mashburn and Ryan Cornelison, both 13, face the prospect of 10 years in juvenile detention and a lifetime on the sex offender registry in a case that poses a fundamental question: When is horseplay a crime?
Bradley Berry, the McMinnville district attorney, said his office "aggressively" pursues sex crimes that involve children. "These cases are devastating to children," he said. "They are life-altering cases."
Last year, in a previously undisclosed prosecution, he charged two other Patton Middle School boys with felony sex abuse for repeatedly slapping the bottom of a female student. Both pleaded guilty to harassment, which is a misdemeanor. Berry declined to discuss his cases against Mashburn and Cornelison.
The boys and their parents say Berry has gone far beyond what is necessary, criminalizing actions that they acknowledge were inappropriate. School district officials said Friday they had addressed the incident by suspending the students for five days.
The outlines of the case have been known. But confidential police reports and juvenile court records shed new light on the context of the boys' actions. The records show that other students, boys and girls, were slapping one another's bottoms. Two of the girls identified as victims have recanted, saying they felt pressured and gave false statements to interrogators.
The documents also show that the boys face 10 misdemeanor charges -- five sex abuse counts, five harassment counts -- reduced from initial charges of felony sex abuse. The boys are scheduled to go on trial Aug. 20.
A leading expert called the case a "travesty of justice" that is part of a growing trend in which children as young as 8 are being labeled sexual predators in juvenile court, where documents and proceedings are often secret.
To Rhonda Pope, mother of Christian Richter, 13, a girl named in the court papers as one of the victims, the charges are justified.
Insisting that the charges are an overreaction, Mashburn's attorney, Mark Lawrence, has worked to bring as much public attention as possible to the story. Lawrence, himself a former Yamhill County prosecutor, and his client briefly appeared on commentator Bill O'Reilly's cable TV show.
"Slap butt day"
After they were brought to the principal's office on Feb. 22, the boys were questioned by Vice Principal Steve Tillery and McMinnville police Officer Marshall Roache.
In the first of two police reports, Roache noted that Cornelison had admitted he'd poked a girl's breast. Mashburn said he also had poked girls in their breasts in the past.
Both boys said in interviews with The Oregonian that they'd been taught to tell the truth and did so in the office that day.
Several girls told Roache and Tillery the boys had swatted their behinds on what they declared to be "slap butt day," according to the first police report. Some girls told police they did not like it and had asked the boys to stop. But a follow-up report filed four days later by Roache makes the situation seem much foggier.
All told, Roache interviewed 14 students besides Cornelison and Mashburn. Seven confessed to bottom-swatting, including one girl who described it as "a handshake we do." Two of the alleged victims said they had swatted boys' buttocks themselves.
This second round of interviews took place while the boys were in detention. A day later, the juvenile court held a hearing on whether the boys should be released. The courtroom was packed with Patton students and families of both boys -- many were crying. The boys were there, too, in shackles and jail outfits.
Two of the alleged victims spontaneously offered to testify on behalf of the boys. Under oath, they told the judge they were friends and did not feel threatened by them. The two girls also testified they felt compelled, during the initial interviews with Tillery and Roache, to say things that weren't true.
The boys were released. But the judge ordered them out of school, required constant parental supervision and barred them from contacting friends. Any deviation, he said, would result in more time in juvenile jail.
The boys' families could hardly believe the situation. Neither boy had ever been in trouble. Now, they faced multiple felony counts. Their parents had to figure out how to calm two boys who they said were traumatized by their time in the Yamhill County Juvenile Detention Center.
For Joe Cornelison, a single dad who is a press operator for the McMinnville News-Register, the prosecution made no sense. He scrambled to come up with $ 10,000 for legal fees and knows he's going to have to pay more in the coming months.
Scott and Tracie Mashburn -- he works at a print shop, and she is a hairdresser -- also have struggled to pay for their son's defense, borrowing $ 10,000 so far, they said.
Both families insist they will not take any plea deals and will fight the charges.
Case disturbs experts
Tillery, Patton's vice principal, said he was not authorized to comment. School district officials said Friday that they take sexual abuse seriously.
Roache, the McMinnville police officer, declined to discuss the case.
Outside experts contacted by The Oregonian found the circumstances unsettling.
While it's true that a great deal of child sex abuse by adults goes undetected and unpunished, cases like the one in McMinnville reflect society's tendency to overreact, said Richard Ofshe, author of "Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy and Sexual Hysteria."
It is difficult to quantify the number of children charged nationwide with sex crimes arising from misconduct in schools. According to the Department of Justice, juvenile crime has fallen steadily since 1998. Between that year and 2002, the only category of juvenile arrests that has grown is sex offenses other than forcible rape or prostitution. Those arrests have risen 9 percent.
Researchers at the American Association of University Women seven years ago published a landmark study of middle school harassment and bullying, finding that eight of ten students surveyed had experienced some form of unwanted sexual behavior at school, primarily verbal. But half also admitted harassing somebody themselves -- testament to the basic ambiguities of middle school.
Rachel Negra, Cornelison's attorney, called the initial felony counts from Berry's office "ludicrous."
Parents of two other alleged victims have told the school district they plan to sue because they face "significant expenses" for counseling to deal with the "sexual harassment and abuse."
Yamhill County, known more for its wineries and hazelnuts than crime problems, isn't the only jurisdiction in Oregon that prosecutes juveniles for similar conduct.
In the past five years, McFarlane said, her office has defended at least 10 youths charged with criminal sexual abuse for behavior she said was typically seen in school settings.
If the McMinnville boys are convicted of any of the counts of sex abuse, they will have to register as sex offenders, which could have a devastating effect, McFarlane said.
The boys' attorneys have filed prosecutorial misconduct motions with the court, which will be heard Aug. 10. The motions allege the boys were hit with additional charges for refusing to accept plea deals and were unfairly selected for prosecution.
Kicked out of school and unable to socialize with friends, Cornelison spends his days alone at home playing a military video game and wondering about his future.