Thursday, June 2, 2011


One would think that in the year 2011, given the advances in technology, communication, and social awareness, child sexual assault would not only be accepted as something that exists but should at this point be known as a crime that takes a particularly skilled type of perpetrator to commit. Yet, everyday very smart, caring people put theirs and other children at risk by not accepting the very harsh realities of child sexual assault. 

Today’s case of denial begins in the tight-knit Naples, Florida community at a school dedicated to Christian values where a young 9 year old -- herein referred to as Doe did as we hope any child would -- reported that her beloved teacher Steven Noyes touched her. Yet as the news spread throughout the school community, as is often the case, a loud group of disbelievers, naysayers, and deniers made their voices heard.  It is the children of those people that I am most concerned for.

What motivates those members of the school community jump to the teacher's defense? Why do people in these cases automatically disbelieve the victim and support the teacher? Is it possibly because the parents cannot stomach the image of a teacher being a sexual predator? Is it all about denial? Are these people naïve or are they cruel? Eternal optimist that I am, I'm betting on naïve.  So as we sit here and pat ourselves on the back about how far we have come when it comes to sexual assault, I say it's time to accept the facts:
  • When society accepts the myths surrounding sexual abuse, it assists sex offenders by silencing victims and encouraging public denial about the true nature of these assaults against children.
  • Even "really great" and "really nice” teachers can be sexually inappropriate. As a matter of fact, the "nicer" the teacher is the more likely that the teacher is using charm and kindness as a way to groom and seek victims.
  • Statistics show that the number of false allegations of sexual assault are far less than the number of truthful allegations of sexual assault. Yet, the default mode is to disbelieve, rather than to believe, the victim.
  • 1 in 4 women will be assaulted in the course of her lifetime. It is because of the blame, denial, and fear that many do not report the crime.
  • Not everyone who comes in contact with a child molester will be abused. In truth, sex offenders tend to carefully pick and set up their victims.  Thus, while sex offenders may feel driven to molest children, they rarely do so indiscriminately or without a plan.
  • Sexual assault survivors are never responsible for the attack, no matter what, no matter how much alcohol was consumed. Responsibility lies with the perpetrator; the survivor is never responsible for the assailant's behavior.
Jane Doe  is an outgoing, kind girl, who still to this day doesn’t even get the sexual nature of a breast-touch, or even breasts as sexual body parts.  She had loved the Village School of Naples since she started there in kindergarten. 
Her parents are the kind of folks you’d want in your community and in your school-- trust me, you’d want them as your friends. They are church going, softball playing parents who take pride in their value-driven life. In fact, they chose Doe’s school because of its mission of, “educating the child’s mind, body, and spirit through Christian values in an ever-changing world.” 
Since the day they were made aware that Doe’s allegations had been reported to the school, they’ve felt anything but Christian values.  And the fact that Doe had to suffer the molestation wasn’t  enough; the teacher and the school decided to question Doe’s story. Interestingly it didn’t happen right away… no the questioning came right before the school was getting a visit for re-accreditation.  Hmm… coincidence? 
The teacher’s name is Steven Noyes, a one-time Golden Halo honoree, who has responded to the investigation by hiring a criminal defense attorney who hijacked the investigation. Noyes refuses to answer questions and refuses to take a polygraph--leaving the sheriffs who want to get to the truth no choice but to suspend the investigation until Noyes changes his mind. Thankfully there is no statute of limitations on child sexual assault, so if Mr. Noyes is faced with another case --therefore corroboration -- this case should come back to haunt him.

The facts of the case are not much different than any other sexual assault.  That is, a a sexual assault that was reported early in the cycle of abuse like Doe’s.  After all, a perpetrator doesn’t just start with out with intercourse or oral copulation.  No--they start slow. They groom and groom to test the “loyalty” and vulnerability of their victim.
Just after Christmas 2010, Doe was in her homeroom class working on her math homework and got stumped on a long division problem. She asked her teacher for help. She went up to her teacher’s desk, and that’s when it happened.

As Doe tells her mother and father, the teacher began helping her with her first question. He put his hand under her dress and on her knee. Then, he reached his hand up her back and under her shirt, coming around the front to rub her chest. He kept his hand there while he helped her with three other math problems.

Afterward Doe didn’t protest. Instead she thanked Mr. Noyes and returned to her seat. She didn’t understand what just happened to her, but she couldn’t push one thought from her mind. When she went home that night, Doe says she still feels her teacher’s hand on her chest. It’s a horribly vivid sensation she can’t shake. As Doe’s mother was getting ready for our courthouse press conference, she told me “Doe still feels that hand--to this day."


The parents didn’t panic, but they simply wanted answers, direction, and support. They didn’t call lawyers or press instead they approached the head of the school, Ginger Sauter, a woman they’ve gone to church with for years, as a friend. Ginger told them, “this is all my fault, I shouldn’t have let him hug the children.”

Then things quickly turned from bad to worse. A criminal investigation began on January 21, 2011, two days after the incident, conducted by an officer from the Collier County Sheriff’s Department. On January 28, the investigator received a phone call – not from Stephen Noyes, but from his criminal defense attorney – who informed the officer that Mr. Noyes, “would not be answering questions, or submitting to a polygraph examination."
On February 1, the same officer paid a visit to the Doe’s home. The little girl bravely met with the investigator, even agreeing to wear the same dress she wore to school that day. She even allowed him to photograph her in it.
Then the officer informed Doe’s mom the investigation had gone as far as it could.  He told the family that he could find no other leads, no other child to corroborate Doe’s story, and with the suspect, ”not agreeing to speak to me,” there was nothing further he could do. And so, the case would be suspended.  So sad, how this suspension somehow provides some people with an excuse to think that this crime couldn’t have occurred. As if the abuse and aftermath was not enough, The Village School of Naples added salt to the fresh wound.
The school doesn’t sit the family down to discuss what to do next. They church pastor, closely associated with the school, does not come to administer spiritual support to the family, instead the Village School quietly expelled little Doe from school!  How’s that for child-centered education? The teacher was allowed to return to his job. Imagine. You did the right thing and they don’t believe you.  In a blink of an eye, you go from honor student, to expelled student.

Child sexual abuse has reached epidemic proportions in schools throughout our nation and has become an alarmingly frequent occurrence. The cases that are surfacing almost daily serve as a wake-up call to everyone in America to protect our children.

The teacher, Steven Noyes, is by all accounts "beloved” and has a clean record. The same scenario goes for the priests who sexually abuse children and all of the other people who choose careers working with children, only to groom them and then sexually abuse them. That’s the typical M.O. of a child abuser. And yet it is the priest, or the accused teacher, who often is believed over the victim.

The day of our news conference, as Doe’s parents nervously walked up to the podium of microphones to face those cameras, there was a taint of disbelief in the air, as though someone had convinced the reporters covering this lawsuit Doe had made-up this story. The questions from the press came fast and furious.

"Wasn’t there a complete investigation?"

"Didn’t they close the case due to lack of evidence?"

I answered one by one.

"No the investigation isn’t over, it was suspended when Mr. Noyes refused to answer the sheriff’s questions."
Some of the questions came from a man standing among the press core.  Well-dressed and well coiffed despite the heat, we learned he was criminal attorney Jerry Berry. Berry began shouting his comments from behind the line of cameras.
I invited him up so he could speak his mind.  He began to attack us--for filing a lawsuit, for holding a press conference, and worst of all the press seemed to go along with this approach. Yes, they wanted to know, why do you want to sue the school. 

This is the story of a father who believes, and is standing up for his little girl. It’s about a mother who wants to make sure no other child goes through the pain and suffering her daughter has. The goal in filing a suit is to get answers, to hold the school accountable; to make sure that this case is not simply swept under the rug.

It is our goal to have a safe forum for people to come forward as we know that there are likely other victims out there. My co-counsel Jeff Herman said it best, “Now we wait for the other girls to come forward. The ones who also know they were touched inappropriately, but suffered in silence."

Our suit describes what happened to Doe. Over the years, Noyes reportedly the “hugging” teacher essentially groomed his young victim. He showered her with affection, drew her close and built a relationship based on trust.
Doe’s parents told me they feel he groomed them too with signs of friendship over the years, all the while insinuating Doe closer and closer into his circle. They remain solid in their conviction they are doing what’s right. And their daughter gives them the strength to do it. After she won an award in her new school, she said, “see mommy, God rewards good people.”
I hope so. I really do.