On Friday, nine Venice High School students were arrested by the Los Angeles police department for a series of sexual assault crimes. Authorities also sought the location of five other students. All 14 students are between the ages of 14 and 17, according to the LA Times.
The investigation began on Tuesday, after a parent reported the allegations. Law enforcement officials reported the discovery of at least one photo of sexual acts, which was circulated on social media. The alleged sex acts began taking place over a year ago and involved at least two female students. The police responded quickly to prevent future incidences, but the investigation is still in its early stages and limited details have been released.
“We didn’t want to leave the suspects out there to potentially victimize other girls at the school,” Los Angeles police Cmdr. Andrew Smith said, reported the LA Times. “The last thing we wanted was to have another victim.”
The incidents reportedly involved cases of both consensual and coerced sexual acts, complicating the issue. While there may have been consent, the reported victims are minors and legally below the age of consent.
Is this a case of coercion, and how prevalent are such incidences in the United States?
According to Mr. Smith, the incidents date back to 2013 and alleged crimes include sexual assault and lewd acts with a minor. The allegations involve a group of male students working together to pressure girls into sexual acts, using verbal threats and threatening their reputation. Several boys were allegedly present during some of the incidents. The identities of the boys arrested have not been released due to their age, but sources say some of the boys are members of the high school’s football and basketball programs.
For some, the alleged Venice high school attacks may be reminiscent of the two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, who were found guilty as juveniles of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl, in a case that gained national attention after a photo and video appeared online to document the assault. In that case, six adults - mostly school officials - were also charged with crimes ranging from obstruction of justice to failure to report child abuse.
Other incidents of adolescents coercing their peers have also made the headlines in past years. In November 2014, two high school students were arrested in Florida for organizing a prostitution circle at three Florida high schools. The pair charged customers in alcohol and up to $100 cash for sex acts. One student, 15-year-old female, was coerced into the ring, while four others were solicited.
In 2013, Montia Parker, 18, from Minnesota was charged with “pimping” out a 16-year-old student at their school. In one instance, Parker drove the student to a man’s house where she was coerced into giving oral sex. Parker pocketed the $60, and after driving the student to another potential customer’s house for sex, the girl refused. Parker told her, “You'll be fine — I didn't drive up here for nothing, and eventually you will need to have sex,” according to the complaint.
According to the Oregon Health Authority, sexual coercion is defined as an “act of persuading or coercing a minor into engaging in an unwanted sexual activity through physical force, threat of physical force, or emotional manipulation.” Many young girls often fall victim to coercion due to age and inexperience. In certain situations, they are unaware that they have a choice and doubt that their declination will be respected.
A study found that 33 percent of sexual assaults occur to victims between the ages of 13 and 17, making sexual assault the most prevalent among adolescents in contrast to any other age group. Among students who reported having sex before the age of 15, about 40 percent of females reported being forced, compared to 5.5 percent of males.
The survey also found that national data indicates 7.7 percent of those aged 14 to 17 have been sexually assaulted by a peer.
For now, Los Angeles officials are focusing on managing how this incident could affect students.
“We’re pouring all our resources over there today and for the next couple of weeks to make sure every child over there feels safe,” said school board member Steve Zimmer, reported the LA Times. “Our crisis team and our psychiatric social workers are on site ready to provide services to every student who is affected by this, indirectly and directly.”