Houston School Deals with Security after Alleged Assault

Houston school officials are investigating how an unidentified man walked into Westbury High School, wandered the halls and allegedly raped a 15-year-old student in a second-floor bathroom.

The alleged sexual assault, being investigated by Houston police, was reported on Thursday, about two months after the Houston Independent School District added a third police officer and beefed-up security measures in response to a brawl between students and Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

The incident has prompted school administrators to further review safety procedures that failed to stop an outsider from walking undetected into the building despite side doors that are supposed to automatically lock on the outside. Westbury students and staff will now be required to keep their identification badges visible at all times.

"All of these schools are big, and they all have doors around the campus, and obviously if a door is left ajar, certainly it is possible for someone to get in," HISD spokesman Terry Abbott said. "That's why we have officers walking the halls and teachers walking the halls and administrators walking the halls, looking for anyone who is there who shouldn't be there."

No adult spoke to the man until he was headed out the door, authorities said. And even then, an HISD police officer who was not yet aware of the sexual assault allowed him to leave with little questioning.

But video cameras scattered throughout the campus caught the suspect entering the school through an open door near the band room, HPD investigator Heidi Ruiz said Friday.

The man, who appeared 20 to 25 years old, walked through mostly empty halls until he entered the upstairs girls bathroom. At one point, Ruiz said, he stopped a student as if asking for directions.

The girl, who was hanging out in the bathroom while skipping class, told officers that the assailant forced her into a stall, told her he had a gun and assaulted her before leaving. She later left the bathroom and told a campus officer she had been raped.

Despite an incident last month in which a 15-year-old girl said she was raped but later recanted, Ruiz said officers have no reason to doubt this girl's word.

The detective said it's possible the suspect wasn't looking to commit a rape when he entered the school, but took advantage of an opportunity when he found the girl hiding in the restroom.

An HISD officer confronted the man just before he left the school, but at the time was not aware of the attack, Ruiz said. The man told the officer he had stopped by the school to drop off his sister's lunch. The man was told he had to go to the office to sign in, Ruiz said, but instead left the building.

Video will be enhanced

Computer forensic experts will try to enhance the quality of the video in hopes of identifying the man, who was described as a 5-foot-5-inch black man, weighing about 140 pounds and wearing a "bald fade" haircut. He was wearing a Southpole T-shirt, blue jeans and white Nike athletic shoes, Ruiz said.

Ruiz said that anyone with information about the suspect can contact Crime Stoppers at 713-222-TIPS.

Meanwhile, she said, the girl has decided to enroll in another school.

A small group of community leaders met Friday afternoon with Westbury Principal Eric Coleman to voice concerns about the school's security.

After the hourlong talk, Deric Muhammad, spokesman for the Millions More Movement Ministry of Justice, said he was encouraged by the discussion.

School employees vowed to create checkpoints at all the school's exterior doors and to allow concerned community groups to conduct "pop-up" visits to check on the school, Muhammad said.

The group vowed to use "community policing" to make sure the campus is secure, to hold forums with parents and to have a follow-up meeting with Coleman.

School district officials confirmed Muhammad's group will be allowed on campus for escorted visits.

More unwelcome attention

Still, students said they're worried that Westbury has had more than its share of problems this year.

The school grabbed national headlines after 27 students - some from Houston and some from New Orleans - were arrested for fighting. After the incident, district leaders vowed to step up security.

"It is evident that this heightened security was not sufficient to keep a stranger from entering the halls of the school and committing this act," Muhammad said.

"Our children deserve more than substandard security."

Some teens said they were nervous about walking Westbury's halls Friday.

"The girls are pretty scared," said Edwin Pineda, 16. "They've got to increase security."

Others said Westbury is doing well and that tension between Katrina evacuees and Houston students is finally starting to die down.

"It could happen at every school. It just happened here," said Eric Escobar, 16 "Westbury is just like any other school - good things happen, bad things happen."