Former Waterford School student alleges school didn’t protect her after she was sexually assaulted

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tabitha Bell speaks to reporters during a news conference at the City and County Building, on, Wednesday, April 3, 2019. Bell has filed a lawsuit against Waterford School, alleging school officials were negligent, invaded her privacy and inflicted emotional distress after she reported being sexually assaulted.

After Tabitha Bell reported to her school that she had been sexually assaulted by a classmate, she felt at first like she had a community of classmates supporting her.

It was late 2017, and the #MeToo movement had just begun. She heard from other girls at Waterford School, a private liberal arts campus in Sandy, who told her they also had experiences with that same classmate being sexually aggressive toward them.

But Bell says a few months later, Waterford administrators had called a senior class meeting — which she wasn’t invited to — and told her classmates details about her assault, and instructed them to not speak with her.

Those classmates she thought supported her started to ignore her.

“They didn’t stand by me,” she said. “They treated me like I wasn’t telling the truth, when they believed me a few days prior. I think that’s what hurt the most, was that I thought I had a support system at Waterford with this situation.”

Bell, now 20, attended the expensive private school for five years, hopeful that the school would help her with her choral career and be able to accommodate her disability — she has a rare form of muscular dystrophy that affects her mobility and balance.

But the woman says the school didn’t provide the promised accommodations, and her treatment became worse after she reported the sexual assault. She recently filed a $10 million lawsuit against the school, alleging it was negligent, invaded her privacy and inflicted emotional distress.

“I want other schools and Waterford to know that they have to give the same dignity and respect to everyone, no matter their ability, their gender or their race,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “I want them to be held accountable for what they did to me and know that they can not do this to another disabled person or another sexual assault victim.”

Andrew Menke, head of the school, said in a statement Tuesday that school officials “categorically disagree” with the accusations outlined in Bell’s lawsuit.

“The accusations leveled in this suit are inflammatory and not an accurate representation of how the school supported this student through five years of attendance until their graduation in 2018,” he said. “Caring is one of Waterford School’s core values and we strictly adhere to our stated student policies. Waterford School does not discriminate on the basis of age, color, creed, disability, marital status, national or ethnic origin, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or genetic information.”

Bell said it was hard to get around at Waterford. While they said they could accommodate her and her service dog, she said she frequently had to rely on classmates to carry her up and down stairs or onto the stage for choral performances.

She felt humiliated, because she had hoped that attending the school would help increase her independence and ability to get around on her own.

That treatment worsened after she reported that her classmate sexually assaulted her while they worked on a school project. She reported it to police a week later, and eventually told school officials.

She said the boy who attacked her took an “early graduation,” and Bell says school administrators pushed her to do the same.

“It was another way I felt betrayed,” she said. “Why would you ever offer the victim the same thing as you would offer her attacker and treat her the same?”

Bell continued with her schooling, according to the lawsuit, despite feeling ostracized from her classmates and teachers.

That included a December 2017 assembly, where her alleged attacker’s friends “reenacted the rape scene” on stage, the lawsuit alleges, mimicking the way the classmate had pushed Bell’s head into the couch and had sex with her.

“Tabitha was horrified as students laughed at the vicious display,” her lawyers wrote in the lawsuit. “Although the principal stopped the skit, Tabitha was devastated both that the details of this deeply personal and horrific event were made public and that the majority of the Waterford community found them humorous.”

Bell completed high school at Waterford, and now attends University of California Berkeley. She said she continued to go to the school because she didn’t want to give up — or have dropping out or transferring affect her college prospects.

“I was taught that you can’t just bail on school,” she said.

The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify victims of sexual assault, but Bell has agreed to be named.

The student Bell accused of assaulting her was not identified in the lawsuit, and Salt Lake County prosecutors declined to file charges against him.

In a six-page letter, the prosecutor who evaluated the teen’s case wrote that he and four other prosecutors agreed that they couldn’t prove a rape case. Bell had told police she froze in fear when her classmate began kissing her in her basement and then rapidly and aggressively removed her clothes.

“However, she failed to say or physically manifest any lack of consent at this time, other than not actively participating,” the letter states.

But the case isn’t quite over yet.

After prosecutors declined to file charges, Bell joined a group of women who helped changed Utah law in 2019.

They first petitioned the Utah Supreme Court to appoint a special prosecutor, arguing that Salt Lake County prosecutors mishandled their cases.

But after their cases spurred a law change, the women dropped their request with the high court in favor of seeking a second review of potential criminal charges by the Utah attorney general’s office.

Bell’s lawyer said that review is still pending.