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Rockville rape comments endanger Montgomery County kids

In the 10 days since allegations of rape at a Rockville high school became talking points in the GOP's anti-immigration agenda, the Montgomery County school system has been flooded with telephone and email threats from around the country, demanding death for "illegals" and prison for educators. One caller talked about "shooting up" Argyle Middle School, and four schools — including Argyle, another middle and two elementaries — were forced into lockdown Wednesday for the students' safety.

"This has become a national issue where community members from Arizona and Florida have decided to weigh in and use hate and race as tools to distract us from our [education] goals," Montgomery County Schools Spokesman Derek Turner told a local TV station. At least one of the terrorists making the threats — and make no mistake, that's exactly what they are — has been linked to a white nationalist group, Mr. Turner said, and another is connected to the right wing "Pizza Gate" conspiracy theory that led a 28-year-old North Carolina man to shoot up a Washington D.C. restaurant in December.

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I wonder if White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer or Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan thought of that possibility before they turned a police issue into a political one, blaming prior policies on illegal immigration for what authorities say was the "brutal" rape of 14-year-old girl in a boys' bathroom by two other students, both of whom happen to be undocumented immigrants.

Did Messrs. Spicer and Hogan consider a single one of the roughly 160,000 kids attending 200 Montgomery County schools before painting targets on their slight backs? The two men certainly didn't consider the girl. Her private ordeal is now playing out on a national stage because of their inflammatory — and in several cases false — public statements.

"Part of the reason that the president has made illegal immigration and crackdown such a big deal is because of tragedies like this," Mr. Spicer told reporters during a White House briefing — nevermind that undocumented immigrants are 44 percent less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, according to a Cato Institute study released this month. He went on to say that the girl herself was a documented immigrant, but that's not true, according to county officials.

Governor Hogan ramped up the alternative fact factor by claming the two teen-agers charged in the incident were in the U.S. as "part of the Obama unaccompanied minor kind of amnesty program" (they weren't); that they were in classes with the girl (again: they weren't); and suggesting that the school system shouldn't have educated them. He was "apparently unaware," as The Washington Post pointed out, "that federal law requires it."

The details of the case are horrific. And they recall a similar incident that happened almost 13 years ago to the day in Howard County. I was one of the reporters covering the story.

In April 2004, a 15-year-old girl at Mount Hebron High School said she she was forced into a school bathroom and sexually assaulted by multiple students. A medical exam found physical trauma consistent with forcible rape, according to court documents. Then, like now, the local community was outraged, and the rush to judgment was swift. But unlike the Rockville incident, the students charged in the Mount Hebron case — ages 18, 16 and 15 — weren't here illegally; they were just black.

They were arrested and charged as adults with first- and second-degree rape, first- and second-degree sexual offense, conspiracy to commit rape and conspiracy to commit a sexual offense. They spent six nights in jail. And their names were in the papers and on TV news every day for two weeks.

They were also not guilty.

The girl, clearly troubled, recanted her story a week after the incident. Police said the sex had been consensual and that the medical exam was actually not "inconsistent" with such a finding, after all; the charges were dropped. Many blamed race for the way the allegations were handled; the victim was white and those she accused, not.

Now, lawyers for the teens charged in the Rockville case, one from Guatemala and one from El Salvador, are claiming the encounter there was also consensual, while police say the physical evidence shows otherwise.

I don't know the truth of the incident, but even if consensual, I know the girl is a victim. No 14-year-old consents to such an encounter without having suffered somewhere. I'm also not surprised by the defense. It's a common blame-the-victim tack to take — popular because it often works, even when it's a lie.

So now, as might be expected, the girl's reputation is also being called into question in the national news along with those she accused.

I wonder if that's what Mr. Spicer and Governor Hogan had in mind.

Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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