The three military fathers sat at the commander's conference table on the U.S. Army base in Germany, pleading for help.
They told the commander that their daughters were among a half-dozen girls sexually assaulted by a boy in their first-grade class at the base school. The principal had known about the boy's behavior for months, they said, but the abuse continued.
The girls' parents had already turned to Army police, military child-abuse authorities and sex-assault specialists. The response throughout the U.S. military's vast support structure was always the same, they said: Sorry this has happened; there's nothing we can do.
"It gives us a sense of hopelessness," one of the fathers, a soldier, said. "We can only do so much as parents."
Tens of thousands of children and teenagers live and attend school on U.S. military bases while their parents serve the country. Yet if they are sexually violated by a classmate, a neighborhood kid or a sibling, they often get lost in a legal and bureaucratic netherworld . That's because military law doesn't apply to civilians, and the federal legal system that typically handles civilian crimes on base isn't equipped or inclined to prosecute juveniles.
The Pentagon's response to addressing this problem stands in contrast to how it cracked down on sexual assault in the ranks following congressional scrutiny more than a decade ago.
"If this would have been a soldier, things would have happened much differently," the soldier's wife said.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense said it "takes seriously any incident impacting the well-being" of soldiers and families and promised, without elaboration, "appropriate actions."
The military's school system — the Department of Defense Education Activity, or DoDEA — said it had "zero tolerance for sexual assault" and that an investigation of what happened at the German base school showed staff "took the appropriate actions to best meet the needs of all students involved."
Yet, in a military that prizes procedure and protocol, the Pentagon's school system has no specific policy to respond to student-on-student sexual violence. It doesn't accurately track the incidents and affords students fewer protections than those assaulted in U.S. public schools, an Associated Press investigation found.
Three sets of parents interviewed for this story spoke on the record. But AP does not name victims of sexual assault without consent and, to protect their daughters' identities, extended that anonymity to their parents.
"The one place you can feel safe with your child going is school," said another mother whose daughter was among those who reported being attacked, "and then you can't even trust school."
The Army soldier and his wife were excited when they arrived in the southern German town of Grafenwoehr (GRAF'-en-vohr) in 2014. The small outpost had housed U.S. troops since World War II, including a private named Elvis Presley.
Though isolated amid farmland and rolling hills, Grafenwoehr put the couple just a train ride away from Europe's great cities. They also liked that their 6-year-old daughter could attend an elementary school run by the military that offered advance placement classes in math and reading.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary as the school year progressed, though their daughter began acting temperamental after the Christmas break. They thought she might be homesick. Then one Thursday in late July 2015, as the wife was watching a TV crime drama with her daughter playing nearby, an actor asked about the "sex" of a victim, and the girl giggled.
How she would've known that word bothered the wife. So later that night, in the girl's bedroom, the wife gently inquired: Had anyone ever inappropriately touched her?
Tearfully, the girl confided that several times a week during the school year, a boy had forced kisses on her, penetrated her with his finger in class and on the playground, and coaxed her to touch him. He told her she'd get hurt if she talked about it, she said. And, she added, other girls in her class were also abused.
The wife's discovery began a struggle that is documented in sworn statements by the soldier, law enforcement records and other documents they shared with AP, and supplemented by interviews with the couple and two other sets of parents.
The same night her daughter came forward, the soldier's wife contacted two of the other girls' mothers and learned that they hadn't known anything, either.
The next morning, the soldier and his wife went to an Army sex-assault response office, where they hit their first road block: A staffer told them their daughter didn't qualify for help because she was a minor.
Then they phoned the Family Advocacy Program, but its specialists handle child abuse reports only when allegations implicate a parent or caregiver. At the Army's Criminal Investigative Command they were told investigators lacked jurisdiction inside the military-run schools and were referred back to the offices they had already contacted. Finally, the base office for the Army inspector general suggested contacting the principal or their congressman.
"We hit everywhere you could possibly go," the wife recalled. "It just felt like, 'Oh, well, kids will be kids.'"
On the eve of a meeting with the principal they had set for Monday, the soldier and his wife talked to another set of parents and absorbed a new shock.
Those parents said the principal had called them about six months earlier, around February 2015, to report an incident at recess between the boy and their daughter. He gave the impression it wasn't serious and promised to take "every step to ensure this never happens again," according to the father, an Army officer who was among those meeting with the commander.
But it did happen again, the officer said. In May, the principal called him about a second incident and said he had removed a class couch where the boy would squeeze next to girls and touch them.
When the parents pushed their daughter for more details, the officer said, she described multiple incidents since February, including the boy reaching under her clothes to touch her genitals. She said that she'd told her teacher at least once about his misbehavior. And she named five other victims, the officer said.
Fuming, he called the principal, naming each girl, including the soldier's daughter. "You need to contact them and let their parents know that this has happened," he recalled telling the principal.
After hearing that, the soldier's wife said, she vomited.
The soldier and his wife had not met Principal Matthew Kralevich before that day in early August 2015, when they recounted their daughter's story.
Kralevich had arrived at Grafenwoehr Elementary in 2012, his second posting in the Pentagon school system. Within two years, the National Parent Teacher Association recognized the school as a "true example of what can be accomplished when schools and families work together."
Armed with information from the other parents, the soldier and his wife pressed Kralevich about what he'd known when and what he'd done to stop further abuse.
Kralevich acknowledged dealing with a previous sexual assault incident involving the boy, according to the soldier's sworn statements to military police and other agencies. When they asked about the other girls, Kralevich said he contacted the families of everyone named and their daughter wasn't among them, they recalled.
Kralevich's answers upset the wife. The officer insisted he shared her daughter's name with the principal months earlier. And the other parents said she, not Kralevich, had alerted them to the assaults.
"I know that you're lying," the wife recalled telling Kralevich.
"I'm sorry you feel that way," she said he replied, "because I did everything I was supposed to do, and I protected our students."
Kralevich said the boy might not return to school, but nonetheless he was thinking about offering staff training, increasing playground supervision and encouraging parents to talk to their children about proper touching. The Pentagon would not allow Kralevich to speak with reporters, and he did not respond to direct requests for comment.
Unsatisfied, the parents of the six girls began strategizing a response. They all met weeks later at a park and shared new information through a Facebook group chat.
Two of the girls, they learned, said they had told at least one teacher what was happening and were instructed not to tell their parents, according to records and interviews.
"I asked her, 'Did you ever tell anybody?' " one of those girls' mothers told the AP. "She said, 'Mom, I told (the teacher). She told me to stop tattle-telling.' "
In late August, the soldier, the officer and a third military father appealed to the base commander. Commanders can take administrative action in civilian misconduct cases, but he told them he lacked jurisdiction over the base school, according to the officer and soldier. Eventually, he said he would make a call.
"Go work it out with the principal was his bottom line answer," the officer recalled. "We said the principal is the problem."
Within a day, the commander, who now works at a different base and didn't respond to AP's messages, followed up to say the principal would be in touch. Some parents said they received a call but did not believe the principal's promises of change.
AP began investigating sex abuse among military children and teens after readers of its 2017 investigation on student assaults in U.S. public schools reported even more complicated problems on bases.
Unlike what's mandated in U.S. public schools, there is no detailed guidance when sexual assaults among kids occur in military-run schools.
The Pentagon has rules and support systems to combat sexual violence among service members, developed and refined over the last decade. Its school system has a 13-page regulation for investigating adult attacks on students. But when it comes to student-on-student assaults, officials can only point to three paragraphs of guidelines that generally prohibit sexual harassment or "physical conduct of a sexual nature."
As a result, reports of student sex assault languish.
At one base elementary school in Naples, Italy, for example, families complained in 2009 and 2010 that administrators responded too slowly to allegations that classmates were sexually assaulting their daughters. One father, in an email, accused Pentagon school officials of "acting like it is not a big deal." Administrators responded that they had added playground monitors and talked to students about "appropriate touching."
The Italy cases surfaced in a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a school counselor, Manuel Losada, who was fired after he discussed the incidents with a military reporter. He told AP that school officials didn't want to hear about the assaults. "There was silence; there was no action," he said. "They were scared to deal with it."
Since 1997, U.S. public schools have operated under specific guidelines from the U.S. Education Department in handling student sexual violence. Those include separating victim from alleged attacker, allowing both sides to present evidence and sharing an investigation's outcome.
Public school students also have legal protections under Title IX, the federal law that bans gender discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. Court rulings have extended that law's protections to student sex assault victims.
An executive order in 2000 attempted to hold federal education programs, such as those run by the Pentagon, to Title IX's tenets but did not grant students the right to sue for damages or request outside investigations — the leverage often needed to get action.
Lacking those options, the best the Grafenwoehr parents could do was file a complaint with the Pentagon school system's Office of Investigation and Internal Review over how the incidents were handled.
The father who was an Army officer said he wasn't told anything about the outcome of the investigation. The soldier said he and his wife were told only that their complaint resulted in a finding that no policies were broken and the principal was "not at fault."
Both men recalled a regional administrator in the Pentagon school system telling them he couldn't discuss the matter because a minor was involved. The school system also declined to discuss details of the case with AP.
"We completely felt like it was a cover-up from the very beginning," the officer said.
The soldier filed a Freedom of Information Act request that December for copies of school records generated by the complaint review process after the system said it had finished its review.
The school system replied that no records could be found.
'SOME KIND OF JUSTICE'
The military's far-flung system of some 165 schools worldwide collects "serious incident" reports to alert headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, about possible crimes or incidents that may generate "negative media/community attention."
Sexual attacks among the system's 71,000 students are supposed to be reported. But the assaults at Grafenwoehr Elementary were among more than 150 that weren't disclosed in a serious incident report, the AP found. System officials wouldn't explain why there were no reports on Grafenwoehr in what they released to AP.
There was also no trace of the alleged assaults in a list of cases Army's Criminal Investigation Command provided AP, even though the soldier had written out a detailed, sworn statement for military investigators.
A spokesman for the Army's criminal investigators said they pursue all credible reports of sexual assault. But several former investigators told AP that agents sometimes shelve reports in a "raw data" file, which the spokesman said is later reviewed.
The mother of one of the Grafenwoehr girls filed a report with Army investigators and recalled being told, "It was a child-on-child crime and someone else would have to take over." She said she assumed it would be passed to another investigative unit, but "after that, we never heard."
The soldier learned his report had been forwarded to German authorities, who under an agreement with the U.S. military share jurisdiction over base crimes. German prosecutors sent him a letter in late November 2015, saying they couldn't help because, according to their law, children under 14 cannot form criminal intent.
"We expected some kind of justice," the soldier's wife said. "It was really discouraging and kind of disheartening to know the military kids, especially overseas, have no protection, and there was nothing we could do."
The family began trying to move elsewhere in Germany, so their daughter could attend a different school for second grade. Instead, they were stuck at Grafenwoehr.
Even though the boy didn't return to school — for reasons the girls' families never officially learned — their daughter struggled. A psychologist treating her wrote that she "has demonstrated a significant difficulty in adjusting her circumstances after being victimized by another child at this school."
In early 2016, the Army granted the family a compassionate reassignment to another base, noting that the girl "was sexually assaulted by another student during school several times this past school year" and that appeals for help to a half-dozen different agencies had failed.
In a final attempt to get answers, the soldier last fall asked his hometown congressman, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas, to make inquiries to the Pentagon's school system.
Thomas M. Brady, the system director, responded in a three-page letter noting that the boy had unspecified "behavioral issues" that the principal had appropriately handled. But Brady did not make clear when the principal first learned of the boy's sexual aggression.
Brady called it a "highly unusual situation" and said he regretted that the soldier and his family left Grafenwoehr with the impression that "school officials do not have compassion for victims of sexual misconduct or their families."
Months after AP began questioning the school system's handling of student sex assaults, Pentagon school officials said they were developing new rules and guidance for reporting and responding to such violence. Officials also said the school system had appointed additional staff to advise families on their rights and available resources, among other reforms.
Like the other parents who talked to AP, the soldier is reluctant to blame the military. But he noticed the disconnect of what happened to his family in an organization known for rallying around its own.
Periodically, he and other service members must attend mandatory sexual harassment and assault prevention training. "I want to stand up and walk out," he said.
He wonders whether assaults at Grafenwoehr Elementary could have been stopped had the school done more, sooner. He also wonders whether the boy got the kind of treatment that experts say can prevent a child from becoming a lifelong offender.
"You're supposed to be the ultimate protectors of your kids," the soldier said. "You just feel like you failed. All the time I feel like that."
The family lives in Colorado, in an off-base subdivision served by a public school. Their daughter, now 10, is still in therapy, they said. Her third-grade teacher last year reported she wasn't being nice to boys, so the soldier's wife had to explain what happened at Grafenwoehr, as she did to the fourth-grade teacher this year — one of the constant reminders they face.
The parents wrestled with whether to share their case publicly. They decided that they should, for the sake of their daughter and others like her.
"I do want her to know later that we did everything that we possibly could to fight for her and to fight for other people," the girl's mother said. "I don't want another family to have to deal with this."
News researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed from New York City.
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