Disclaimer: *Many names have been substituted with initials to protect the identity of those who were minors at the time of the incident. Isabella Fletcher, referred to in court documents and the press as I.F., has consented to reveal her name.
The news about the party started circulating at the beginning of the week. *S.S., an athlete on the Hebron 9th Grade Center football team, had the house to himself. His dad was going to be out of town, leaving his older sister in charge for a night.
On September 28, 2012, students gathered at a suburban house in Carrollton, bringing a bottle of vodka, a few cases of beer, and weed. The first group arrived around 7 p.m. and dispersed through the property, some smoking in the backyard, others setting up a game of beer pong. At 7:30, another group came in, among them two girls, A.H. and Isabella “Ellie” Fletcher. They were all a little over a month into their first year of high school, and this was their first high school party. Ellie was a cheerleader and a good student; in fact, that September, she was Hebron 9th Grade Center’s Student of the Month. She and A.H. brought a little silver flask to the party to share.
A.V., one of the boys on the football team, remembers her coming in. As the party raged, S.S.’s older sister, realized it was out of control. She invited two of her friends over to help watch the 20 boys and two girls in attendance.
Later, A.V. texted a friend that Ellie, in particular, had been beyond wasted, “That’s the most drunk I’ve ever seen anyone in my LIFE.” Later, during a 2017 civil trial, he’d testify about standing in the entryway of the house, between the front door and the living room with some of the others. He watched Ellie open the door, and stumble out, leaving it wide open. She wandered out into the quiet neighborhood street, singing loudly enough that her voice carried back. I.G., Hebron 9th Grade Center’s quarterback, would say that she could barely take two steps without losing her balance.
A.V. followed her outside.
Taken from the December 17, 2018 deposition of Defendant A.V.
Charla Aldous: You knew that in order to have sexual intercourse or oral sex with a girl, that girl needed to be able to give consent to that action, correct?
C.A. And you knew that an intoxicated 14-year-old girl could not have the ability to give consent and be fully aware of what she was doing, correct?
C.A. You told the detective she was stumbling. You told me she was running out of the house loudly singing and into the street, and you thought she was intoxicated, correct?
C.A. And you’ve already told me that you agree a 14-year-old intoxicated girl cannot give consent to sexual intercourse, correct?
A.V. But intoxicated just—I think that’s broad.
C.A. How about “as drunk as anybody you’d ever seen in your life”? Is that good enough?
When Ellie Fletcher returned home on the morning of Saturday, September 29, her mother, Jaime Fletcher, immediately knew that something was wrong. Paul and Jaime Fletcher were protective, careful parents. Sleepovers were rare; Jaime only agreed to let her daughter spend the night at the house of a good friend, A.H., after talking to A.H.’s mother, who assured her that the two girls would be in all night, watching movies.
But Ellie didn’t stop to talk. She walked right past her mother, heading up the stairs.
“I said, ‘Whoa. Hold on. Hold on a second,’ and she just went straight up to her room,” Jaime would later testify on the stand. She didn’t know yet that she and A.H. had been invited to a party—their first high school party. Giddy and sneaky, they’d gone to a friend’s house, and then they’d walked to the party. It had all seemed mature and exciting, their induction into the world of teenagers.
But from that day forward, something had changed in her daughter, as if she’d been dealt a deadly wound no one else could see. She was preoccupied. Every day, she came home from school quiet and shaking.
“It was like something was sucked out of her,” Jaime testified. “She was physically there but mentally, it was like she was gone.”
At first, Ellie hadn’t remembered much of the night of the party, other than vomiting into the toilet so uncontrollably that it felt as if it was being pulled out of her, and looking down and seeing blood in the bile. But the night had started to come back to her, pieced together with the help of worried friends, including S.S. and A.H. She’d buried it deep inside her, but it hadn’t stopped trying to claw its way out.
On October 10, Jaime pulled up to the school to pick her up as usual. But today, Ellie fled to the car, running like someone was chasing her. She dove into the car, slammed the door and screamed. She kept screaming, kicking the dashboard of the car and banging her palms on the window.
Jaime couldn’t take it anymore. “What’s going on? You’re not getting out of the car until you tell me what’s going on.”
“Everybody is being so mean to me.” Ellie didn’t want to go into detail. She resisted, but Jaime insisted Ellie tell her exactly what they were saying to her. Jaime collected horrific bits and pieces. “Whore. Slut. Boys go through you like a train. Your p**** is so loose, it’s dragging on the floor behind you. You should kill yourself.” Hebron 9th Grade Center and Hebron High School, which Ellie didn’t even attend, seemed to be rife with gossip, and Ellie was its target. While she barely knew what had happened, everyone else around her—even complete strangers—did. They laughed at her when she passed them in the halls.
Jaime called the school that day, talking to a counselor, Mrs. Denson-Whitehead, about the bullying, begging the school to handle it. Ellie stayed home the next day in a stupor. But on Friday October 12th, she returned. She felt a little stronger and there was a Hebron Hawks football game that night. Like in most big high schools in Texas, football in LISD is a proud tradition, and a school’s great unifier. Whenever the Hawks play, the team totes a huge wooden plank to the games with “Bring the Wood” inscribed on it, meaning play with passion. The creed is taught to every player, including A.V. and I.G.
That night at the stadium—fondly nicknamed “The Woodshed”—Jaime was at the concession stand when another mom suddenly pulled her aside.
“I need to talk to you about something right after the game,” she said.
Weary after two weeks of confused worry, Jaime replied, “If this is about Ellie, I need to know now.”
Finally, for the first time, surrounded by team spirit and the smell of high school concessions, Jaime was told that her daughter had been assaulted.
In May 2019, Isabella Fletcher sits across from me in a conference room at Aldous/Walker law firm in downtown Dallas. Every so often, she spins the chair back and forth and carefully wipes under her eyes. She has a formidable, stylish manicure and bold makeup that accentuates her strong bone structure. Though she’s only 21 years old, she’s already had her share of the worst kind of spotlight.
“I loved going to school,” she recalls. When she talks about herself, her voice quickens with tears. “I was the kind of person who was friends with everyone, outgoing—not anymore. I’m kind of socially awkward now. I was very outgoing. I like to think I used to be funny; I used to make the best out of things—in an awkward situation, I’d throw some comedy in there. I think I was fun.”
She downplays the night of September 28, 2012 in her mind. Her first instinct was, and still is, to ignore it, block it out and wipe it away altogether. Isabella Fletcher is what became of 14-year-old Ellie. And she doesn’t want to recount the incident itself. It’s no one’s business. We—onlookers, readers, skeptics and believers—already know too much.
It happened on the lawn at the side of the house, a little after 10 or 10:30. A.V. followed her outside, and another boy, I.G., joined them later on. I.G. would testify in a later civil case that Ellie didn’t seem to recognize them, said “stop” and had tried to push their hands away.
In a 2017 civil trial, the Fletcher’s legal team would ask A.V. to justify a post on his social media around the time of the party, a meme that read: “It’s Not Rape If I Have Swag.”
“I just thought it was funny at the time,” he’d say. “I don’t find it funny now. Obviously.”
When they were done, A.V. and I.G. returned to the party and bragged about their fi rst “hookup” at a high school party. Later on, one of the other boys found Ellie naked and unconscious in the wet grass where they’d left her.
A.V. asked S.S.’s sister to wash his pants, which she found odd. She didn’t know how to use a washing machine, so all she did was apply stain remover to a fresh, rusty blot on his shorts. Later, she would testify, she was “almost certain” the splotch was blood.
Soon after the party, a police detective asked A.V. if it was permissable to have sex with a drunk girl. “No,” he said, “because she probably wouldn’t agree to it if she was sober.”
Isabella had been so intoxicated that S.S.’s sister hadn’t let her leave when A.H.’s mom came to pick the two girls up. She instructed A.H. to lie to her mother and say that Isabella’s parents had changed their minds about the sleepover and her father had come to pick her up instead. She’d even taken Isabella’s phone away.
Isabella remembers waking up Saturday morning, in one of the bedrooms at S.S.’s house, disoriented and troubled. She remembers the numbing sight of blood spots on her underwear. “The first thing I did was text a friend, ‘I was raped.’ I knew what they had done was not okay. I just woke up with this overwhelming thought: they had raped me,” she says.
That following Monday, A.V. wore a familiar pair of shorts, the very ones Isabella had worn to the party. Later, he’d say he only brought them to school to wash them, but other testimony confirms that he showed them off, bragging about “popping Ellie’s cherry” in them.
“It was on social media; everyone was talking about it,” Isabella recalls. “Even people I thought were my friends bullied me.” It’s not clear how many people knew about the night, and who was talking about it. But it was certainly widespread enough that a fellow mother was the one to finally tell Jaime.
Isabella’s assertion that she had been assaulted probably scared the other students. They would all be on the hook for underage drinking. It was as if Isabella was breaking an unspoken pact. As S.S.’s sister would later testify, she believed Isabella “had had sex … and was lying to make herself look innocent.” And in doing so, she was going to get them all in trouble.
“If you don’t want to get raped,” she said to Isabella, “then don’t drink.”
“It just kept on and spread like a disease,” Isabella says with quiet horror, even years later. “People I’ve never met before have heard about it.” Though she’d reported intense bullying on October 10, Jaime Fletcher called the school again first thing Monday morning and reported the sexual assault to Mrs. Denson-Whitehead. According to a public record appeal, Mrs. Denson-Whitehead notified the administration, but the Fletchers testified that she told them that “it was going to be very difficult going against the football team” and that “the best thing for Isabella would be to transfer schools.”
The Fletchers’ main source of horror was that Ellie was still passing the boys in the hallways. How, Jaime and Paul asked, could they possibly send their daughter back to school alongside her alleged rapists?
Mrs. Denson-Whitehead began looking into online school, which confused Jaime. “No, she’s not going anywhere. They’ve got to go somewhere,” she remembers arguing.
The administration investigated. S.S., the host of the party and an athlete, was the first boy on the football team to be interviewed by the coaches. “They asked if anybody else on the football team was there, and I told them no,” he said in a November 2015 deposition. “l was just taking all the blame.” When Isabella’s legal team pressed, he explained that there had been other football players there, and that he’d lied to the coaches to protect his teammates. Underage drinking was grounds for suspension from practices and games. However, the school quickly halted its investigation at the request of their school resource officer, Cole Langston, who worried that it would muddy the waters of the official Carrollton Police Department investigation. So the boys remained in school.
When Isabella didn’t return to school or transfer, she was threatened with truancy. Finally, Children’s Medical Center, which had performed Isabella’s rape kit and diagnosed her with PTSD, reccomended the Homebound program as a temporary solution, until the boys could be investigated and removed. The program is usually reserved for students with terminal illnesses.
Since Ellie was enrolled in Homebound, she was removed from the cheerleading team. Suddenly, she couldn’t even step foot on school campus without written authority. Leaving the team felt like acceptance, that life was diff erent now, that life would always be diff erent, that the outgoing, lively Ellie was gone. Jaime gathered her daughter’s cheerleading uniforms, bagged them up, feeling like she was packing her daughter away too, and took them to the school office.
“And right when I look to my left, there is I.G., [one of] the young men that raped my daughter, getting a pass to go to athletics,” Jaime testified. “I wanted to reach over that counter. It was everything I could do not to scream and wail in that office.”
No one seemed to believe Isabella. Her word, her trauma, her diagnosis of PTSD: none of it was enough. She’d waited too long to tell her parents, too long to get her rape kit, she’d been too drunk to remember all the important details—“how do you know for sure you didn’t consent if you don’t remember?” one investigator asked her.
S.S missed half of a football game as punishment for hosting a party with underage drinking. Neither A.V. nor I.G. would miss so much as a single practice. Isabella would never return to LISD.
From the deposition of S.S’s older sister, on 10/29/2015 for the case of I.F. vs. Strifler
Charla Aldous: Can you understand how Ellie was completely humiliated by all of the talk about what happened to her when she was in an impaired state?
Strifler: Yes, ma’am. C.A. And so you knew you were spreading rumors when you told people, did you not? Why did you think that was okay?
S: I didn’t; I at [the time] was immature and stupid, and I—it seemed like—like the thing to do, like it wasn’t—I would never consider doing that to someone now. That’s just vile and awful, but at the moment, I didn‘t think that far into it, and I—it just was an awful thing to do. …
C.A. You were mad at Ellie because she reported the rape, and it became an investigation?
S: I believed it was consensual; so I was angry that she was, in my view, lying … I just didn’t believe that an incident like that had happened at my house.
After a year in the Homebound program, where she struggled to teach herself algebra and biology, Isabella was shunted sideways into a smaller school, full of kids who hadn’t wanted to be homeschooled or attend normal public school. It was nothing like the education she’d had before. Isabella had always made As and Bs, but now she found herself struggling just to catch up. And even there, she couldn’t escape the shadow of the “other girl.” One of the first times she introduced herself to another student, they replied, “Oh, you’re that girl, that cheerleader from Hebron.”
“I remember going into the bathroom and just bawling my eyes out,” Isabella says. “Why can’t I just get away from that persona? I’m either that whore or that raped girl. As soon as one kid caught on, everyone knew about the new girl.”
Over the course of the year, the charges against A.V. and I.G., who were juveniles at the time, were heard by a grand jury, but from the beginning, it was doomed to fail. Their initial police reports had been conducted without parental consent, and were thrown out of evidence. And though Isabella wanted to tes- tify, the presiding judge made the decision not to include her testimony. At the time, the Denton grand jury took no action, which in the juvenile system is the same as a no bill; meaning there was not enough evidence for a criminal trial.
But the Fletchers were desperate for justice. They still hoped LISD might help them, and that soon, Isabella might return to school. Instead, months later, the conclusions the adminis- tration came to horrified the Fletchers. LISD found that the social media posts attacking Isabella, while “improper and hurtful,” did not amount to “bullying” as defined by LISD policy because there was no indication that they occurred while the students were on school property or at a school-sponsored activity. They did not threaten harm to I.F.’s person or property, and they were not sufficiently pervasive to create a harassing environment.
However, Isabella felt harassed as she walked the hallways. Students were allowed to use their phones on campus and testified that they had been posting about Isabella during the school day. For years after, they continued to torment Isabella. The district took the position that Isabella had not been conclusively assaulted. A.V. and I.G. would face no punishment. Neither would anyone else. The decision arrived in a letter sent to the Fletchers more than 210 days after the Fletchers first reported the assault.
The feeling of betrayal by her school, to this day, brings Isabella to furious tears faster than anything else. That, she says, is in some ways the worst betrayal, the demolition of her education and the future she once saw for herself. Though technically it was her family’s choice to remove her from LISD, it had been a Catch-22: attend class with her alleged rapists and classmates who resented her for “crying rape,” or exile herself. “At that point, I stopped trying. I was angry. I would snap because I [felt like] everyone was trying to manipulate me, everyone had an agenda and I never knew what it was.”
Even though Ellie had left LISD, her classmates hadn’t forgotten her. Two years later, a Twitter account that shared “secrets” from North Texas high schools, posted a detailed account of what had happened to her, tagging Isabella and both A.V. and I.G. S.S., the party’s host, retweeted it during class: “My front yard!” he added with a few smiley faces.
Later, in his deposition, he admitted that it was a hard tweet to defend. “I wanted to get favorites, retweets, stuff like that. So being stupid like I was, I tweeted it,” he said, then added. “As you read, it says that she was F’d [sic] by them, not raped. If the account would have said ‘where two guys raped a girl,’ I would have never ever put my comment on there. That would just be—that would just be obscene.” It seems that even two years later, after being interviewed by both police detectives and school administrators, at least one of the key students still didn’t believe that Isabella had been assaulted, and the importance of leaving her alone still hadn’t been impressed upon him. The host of the party, the one who had once been Isabella’s friend, still valued social media attention over her.
Isabella didn’t find it funny. As a result of being tagged in posts about her assault, over 3,000 people tried to follow her. “They found my Instagram, my Snapchat. Someone leaked my number. I had boys texting me disgusting, degrading things— ‘Can I do to you what those boys did to you?’—they degraded me, objectified me and made me ultimately feel like trash. Just trash,” she remembers.
Once during that period, she posted on social media, “Christianity is about trying to be a better person & working towards it, not constantly making the same wrong mistake thinking he forgives u [sic],” and bullies swarmed like sharks smelling blood. Even one of her alleged rapists, A.V., joined in.
When asked in a 2018 deposition to defend it, he said, “I guess I felt that she was just being hypocritical … because just knowing her and how she acted, that—I suppose that it didn’t align with how religious she was claiming to be.” When pressed, he admitted he was referring to her actions on the night of the party. “I was passing judgement.” When asked if he was mocking her, he replied, “I suppose.”
At 15, it would have been normal for Isabella to date, but the thought made her feel that there must be something terribly wrong with her. The confident cheerleader, the girl who had once been Hebron 9th Grade Center’s Student of the Month, had been torn down.
She shakes her head. “It took away the part of me that wanted to get to know everyone. I walked around thinking about what they knew, wondering if they were connected to the boys and their friends.”
The first time she talked to a guy after that night, she wanted to be normal. But when he started talking about wanting to kiss her, she tried to explain to him why she didn’t want to kiss him. She told him everything that had happened, the entire yearlong trauma. When she finished, he was silent.
“Then he said, ‘That’s disgusting. I can’t be with a raped girl. That’s sick.’ And that moment scarred me.” She didn’t want to fight anymore. It felt like a train had blown through her life, wrecking everything in its path. “I became hardened. I thought hell after we die isn’t real. I’m living in hell. This world is hell.”
Trial testimony from I.F. v. The Lewisville Independent School District on 3/6/2017. Charla Aldous cross-examines then-Assistant Principal Amanda Werneke
Charla Aldous: Do you believe Ellie Fletcher—there was a hostile environment for her at the Hebron High School after September 28th, 2012?
Amanda Werneke: I never officially concluded that there was a hostile environment at our school
C.A: If a child—let’s assume a 14-year-old child is raped. Do you think it might be a hostile—or would be a hostile environment for that child to have to walk the hallways of their school and know their rapist was in that environment?
A.W. It definitely could be. I don’t want to speak to every single case, because I don’t know, but—
C.A. So, you think some rape victims would be okay with seeing their rapist in the hallway?
A.W. I would imagine they would be very uncomfortable with that.
At first, Isabella didn’t want to pursue a legal case against her school district. She pictured a grueling process where she would be the one on trial, that would drag on for years and years, and keep her from ever leaving that night behind.
“But parents kept telling me, ‘Isabella, you need to stand up for yourself,’” she says. “They wanted me to see worth in myself. They believed in law and believed people would protect me.”
A year and a half after the assault, months of trials dragging out, of testimony and interrogation, the Fletcher’s original lawyer, Christopher Payne, took them to meet a personal injury attorney in Dallas, Charla Aldous. Charla wasn’t sure she could take on any more cases, but Payne persisted. “Just meet Isabella,” he said. “Meet her and then decide what you want to do.”
The first time Charla met the Fletchers, the parents talked, while Isabella herself sat in silence. She was completely closed off.
Charla turned to her. “What about you?” she asked. What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know,” Isabella responded. It was hard to imagine the end would ever come.
With Charla and Payne leading the charge, the Fletchers took LISD to federal court over Title IX. Title IX exists to protect students in the case of gender-based violence and harassment. But Isabella’s case is proof that Title IX is not the beacon of hope it should be.
The suit claimed that LISD didn’t investigate properly, discipline the offenders properly or even train and supervise their employees to properly uphold Title IX, resulting in deliberate indifference to Isabella’s assault and the resulting bullying.
Deliberate indifference is very simply an intentional failure to act when the district knew—or reasonably should have known—that there was a hostile environment. LISD was certainly aware of the bullying on October 10 and of the alleged sexual assault by October 15. In a deposition, one of the football coaches even alluded to a meeting held with the football team the week after the alleged assault, before the Fletchers had even reported it to the school, meaning the school already knew, at the very least, that there had been a party with underage drinking. When the incident was reported, no one from the school notified the Title IX Coordinator, Dr. Rogers; he found out, allegedly, weeks later, when a school board member asked him about the rumors.
The case unfolded in brutal detail. While both A.V. and I.G. pled the Fifth, plenty of horrifi c testimony emerged, for example, Assistant Principal Amanda Werneke’s encounter with a female student who had reported to her a conversation she had with A.V., where he described forcing Isabella to perform oral sex, while she was “too drunk and too high to actively participate” and said “it is not like she wanted to do it, but I wanted her to do it.”
Title IX demands that the district inform the Fletchers of their rights, which include a prompt investigation from the school. The day after Jaime Fletcher reported the assault, Mrs. Denson-Whitehead relayed it to Hebron 9th Grade Center Principal Mark Dalton and Assistant Principal Amanda Werneke. School Resource Officer Cole Langston then requested they delay their investigation until the police had concluded their own. Even so, on November 8, 2012, the Carrollton Police, who decided not to file charges, let LISD know they were free to investigate. They still didn’t open an investigation for two more months, in part because of winter holidays. Charla argued that the delay of 88 days went against Isabella’s right to a quick investigation under Title IX.
Mrs. Denson-Whitehead later testified that she believed Isabella’s story. There is certainly evidence that school administrators eventually conducted an investigation. Though no coach had ever spoken to A.V., the administration did, for, as he recalled, about 10 minutes. S.S.’s sister, who went to another school, was brought to Hebron 9th Grade Center to talk about her part in the bullying. S.S. recalled that the football coaches addressed the team about the party, but not about the bullying or the alleged assault.
Title IX also includes assurances that Isabella be protected from her alleged attackers on school grounds. That doesn’t mean suspending them or expelling them, but possibly changing class schedules and putting an end to the spread of rumors and gossip. LISD officials admit that a single instance of rape should activate Title IX protections. However, they protested that they could not act against the boys unless their investigation proved that the sexual assault accusation was credible.
When the administrator in charge of Title IX was questioned on the stand, he admitted he had no idea that they hadn’t followed procedure. Th at administrator was Dr. Kevin Rogers, now the Superintendent of LISD.
In 2015, during court proceedings, Dr. Rogers admitted on the stand that, “the school district did not abide by what they had represented to the Fletchers would happen if there was an allegation of rape.”
Even if LISD had perfectly followed the letter of the law, as they now claim they did, the result was a girl who felt she had been horrifically assaulted and then relentlessly bullied in school and online, and a school district that was either indifferent and unwilling to help her, or totally ill-equipped. Neither outcome is promising; one points to a morally inept school district, and the other suggests that Title IX has cracks wide enough to swallow football stadiums.
Whether the failing was in LISD or in Title IX law doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, Lewisville Independent School District claimed that due to technicalities, confusion, and the fact that the original party was held off-campus, they had “no constitutional duty to protect Isabella from the assault and harassment by other students.” Being told to kill herself didn’t constitute cyberbullying. Her alleged rapist bragging about taking her virginity didn’t constitute harassment. Two parents begging for guidance had to remove their daughter from the district altogether just to ensure that she didn’t have to take algebra alongside the boys that she asserts attacked her.
Charla originally submitted a suit alleging that LISD acted with deliberate indifference toward Isabella and retaliated against her for filing a Title IX complaint. Of the two charges, deliberate indifference had a much lower burden of proof. The 88-day delay in investigation, the steps that were not taken to ensure she was separated from her alleged attackers and bullies: all the evidence of deliberate indifference was there.
“If we’d been able to sue for deliberate indifference, we would have won,” Isabella tells me later.
However, the Fletchers were not allowed to sue for deliberate indifference; a magistrate judge threw their entire case out. Presiding Judge Ron Clark returned much of their suit, but didn’t return deliberate indifference.
“Instead, we had to show that because Isabella filed a complaint, the school intended to retaliate, subjectively and objectively,” Charla explains. “The only way to prove that would be if a school administrator admitted on the stand that they retaliated against her for filing a complaint.”
Then-Principal Dalton grudgingly conceded that they could have made some accommodations—ensuring that they don’t have classes together, for example, which they frequently arrange for students being bullied. He added that they could have called the boys in and ordered them not to talk to her. He took no such action, but protested in court, “I can’t just suspend a boy because any one girl in school comes up and says, ‘I’ve been raped.’”
In his 33-year career, he said, not once has a female student come to him and accused a male student of assault. After the way Isabella was treated, it’s not likely that any student ever will.
As the Fletchers’ attorneys, Charla Aldous and Christopher Payne concluded in closing, their inaction had a lasting effect beyond the Fletcher’s case. If another student was assaulted, would their treatment of the Fletchers encourage that student to come forward and make a report? What impact would their response have on the students still in LISD?
“Honestly, I have three daughters; I told you,” Payne said to the jury. “I’m not sure that they would be willing to subject themselves to what Ellie stood up for if they saw that kind of a response.”
“We tried to help Ellie Fletcher. We did the best we could. We did not try to hurt her,” Thomas Brandt, the attorney for LISD, replied. “We’re not perfect. No one is, but our heart is in the right place. We were trying to help her.” He reminded the jury that Isabella’s assault and the resulting bullying wasn’t the question; these arguments were designed to stir up emotions and cloud their judgement. The only question the jury was to consider was, “Did Lewisville Independent School District retaliate against her because she reported those things?”
Brandt pointed out that Isabella had been diagnosed with PTSD and that it had caused her to lash out at her parents. Perhaps, he proposed, it also had caused her to lash out at LISD. “They lash out at their parents, and now they lash out at the school district. Why? Because it’s safe, because the school district was caring for her.”
Finally he reminded them that they were not considering whether LISD had fulfilled the requirements of law perfectly, only whether they had deliberately retaliated against Isabella for filing a complaint.
The jury ruled in favor of LISD, devastating the Fletchers. I emailed Dr. Rogers regarding this article, and I received a response instead from LISD’s communications officer. “Our primary concern has always been the well-being of our (now) former student,” she wrote. “It is our best hope that she finds continual support in every future endeavor. This was a terrible situation that occurred off campus, and we believe the facts show, and two separate courts agreed, the district responded appropriately. We currently do and always have taken our Title IX obligations seriously and fully comply with that law.”
One troubled juror on the trial tells a different story. The day after the verdict, he called Charla after reading up on Title IX cases. “Why didn’t you sue under deliberate indifference?” he asked desperately. The jury, he revealed, had been devastated not to be able to find LISD guilty. “There wasn’t one of us on the jury that didn’t think she was raped,” he said. “We wept.”
LISD, however, took their victory at face value. In fact, about two weeks after winning the Title IX case, they sent Isabella an invoice of over $27,000 for their legal fees.
Charla was shocked when she received the bill from Thomas Brandt, which included costs for transcripts, witnesses and printing.
LISD declined to comment about it, but there is some precedent. A school district could collect money from students or parents who sued them but only if they proved the lawsuit had been unreasonable or improper. In fact, this might be LISD’s common practice. According to a Dallas Morning News article about Isabella’s case, in 2010, the family of 9-year-old Montana Lance, who hung himself on an LISD elementary school campus, sued the district for doing nothing to prevent his bullying, which ultimately led to his suicide. When the child’s parents lost their suit, LISD, who maintained that Montana’s bullying had nothing to do with his suicide, asked them to pay $14,000 in their legal fees.
Judge Ron Clark, who presided over Isabella’s case, sent LISD a stern warning. “[She] is a sexual assault survivor who still struggles with the psychological and emotional consequences of her assault,” he wrote in his ruling. Though she hadn’t won, she had pursued her case “in good faith” and in the process, had done the community a “substantial favor.” Further, he emphasized his hope that her suit would force the school district to take their duties under Title IX more seriously. He rejected their request for reimbursement.
Isabella was relieved; even though she’d lost the case under the judge’s watchful eye, he’d heard her speak. Moreover, he believed her.
“You expect protection for your children. They are entrusted to the care of these districts,” Charla says. Anger still sparks in her eyes when she talks about it. “The only people who didn’t believe Isabella was raped were A.V. and the Lewisville Independent School District.”
Isabella only saw A.V. a couple of times after leaving Hebron, once on July 4th, 2015 when she was 17 and after charges against A.V. had been filed. She was watching fireworks at Castle Hills with her then-boyfriend when she ran into A.V., who was on his way to a party with a group of younger girls. They made eye contact and at the sight of him, Isabella froze. A.V. laughed and kept walking.
“It just sent me into this crazy amount of anger.” She followed him.
After about 20 feet, he wheeled around. “What?” he demanded.
“I started yelling at him, calling him a rapist, telling him that he ruined my life, that he’s a disgusting psychopath,” Isabella remembers. “He then looked at me with a smirk on his face and said, ‘You and I both know you wanted it.’ Then he reached out to grab my arm and I punched him in the face. My boyfriend then picked me up and ran with me back to the car.”
From the December 17, 2018 deposition of Defendant A.V.
Charla Aldous: To this day do you feel ashamed about it?
A.V. I regret that I lost my virginity with—like, that way, like with another guy there. But I wouldn’t say ashamed.
C.A. Well, have you ever thought that what happened could have lifetime consequences on Ellie Fletcher, losing her virginity when she was drunk to two boys having sex with her at the same time on the ground outside a friend’s house in the middle of the night?
C.A. Never even crossed your mind?
A.V. No, because I don’t think I did anything wrong. I think what we did was consensual.
C.A. But you believe that had Ellie Fletcher been sober, she would not have agreed to have sex with you and I.G. at the same time, correct?
A.V. Probably not the both of us, no.
C.A. Did you ever feel like you needed to apologize to Ellie?
A.V. No … because we both know that it was consensual.
With the Title IX case against LISD over, Charla and the Fletchers embarked on a civil case against A.V. This time, finally, they got a win; the jury ordered that Isabella be paid about $30 million in damages.
“I have a daughter,” one juror told me on the phone. He remembers the case very clearly. “Right now she’s Isabella’s same age. I’m getting bothered by [the case] now.” To him, Paul Fletcher’s testimony was hugely impactful as he understood a father’s anger and desire to protect his daughter. I.G. did not appear at the trial. But A.V. chose to testify, admitting on the stand that he and I.G. had had sexual intercourse with Isabella, and that, were she sober, she probably wouldn’t have agreed. The juror says he’ll never forget A.V.’s name and face, or the fact that if he ran across another girl in the exact same situation that Isabella had been in, he’d see no reason to act any different. “It’s sad. There’s a thousand more just like him.”
The Fletchers also reached a favorable settlement in a case against the family that hosted the party (on the basis of creating an unsafe environment where Isabella was assaulted). Charla hopes one day to see criminal charges against A.V. and I.G., now adults. First Assistant District Attorney Jaime Beck explained to me that in order to bring new charges, a grand jury would have to see new evidence. The court would have to find that due diligence was used to obtain any potential new evidence at the time of the original investigation. Though complex, she says, “all of these matters are under review.”
Regardless, the process has brought tremendous healing to Isabella, even though she doubts she’ll ever see the money she was awarded. “We’ve probably made a total profit of about $6,” Charla jokes. “But it’s worth it.”
Charla once compared Isabella to a porcupine—all sharp edges. These days, Isabella works as a runner in her law office. She’s growing into a young woman who speaks eloquently and intelligently. She seems older than her years and more confident than she feels.
“The fact that I’m even talking about it now is crazy,” Isabella admits. Trauma, she says, stains you. Counseling can treat it, but it can’t erase the fact that it happened. “When it comes to my education, it’s already lost. Every area of my life was screwed up.” Sometimes, she’s so scared to fail she doesn’t even want to try. She’ll never forget the things people said to her, or the way it felt to be 14 and told that she shouldn’t drink if she didn’t want to get raped.
“I wasn’t able to move. If I had consensual sex, I should have been able to put my clothes back on. Don’t you think they’d have more care for me, instead of leaving me outside naked in the yard? I couldn’t get up.” She pauses for breath, to collect herself. “The only people who worry about where the line of consent is are the ones who want to push that line. It’s clear. You see a girl throwing up or stumbling, not making sense, slurring her words, can’t hold her phone—you do not have sex with her. There were many boys that night that didn’t take advantage of me. There’s no excuses for the two that did.”
Over the years, women of all ages have sought her out and thanked her for what she has done. Even though half of them tell her they feel they could never come forward after seeing how she was treated, they thank her all the same for speaking out, when it’s so much easier to stay silent.
“We need more people to see it’s wrong, and to speak up. Sometimes when you are a victim, you want it to go away, you don’t want to talk about it. But we need to end the stigma and change our perceptions, and that takes more than survivors. It takes people with empathy and awareness,” she says.
Isabella is still picking up the pieces after the bomb that went off in her life. She has new burdens of social anxiety and severe PTSD that she will carry for the rest of her life. She isn’t equipped with the basic education she was meant to receive at Hebron High School, where I.G. and A.V. had the continued privilege of attending.
“Sometimes I have this overwhelming fear …” she trails off. “I feel like [the assault and the case] was my identity for such a long time. I don’t know who the hell I am, what I want, what I want to do. I’m so used to failing, I’m scared of success, scared to fail.”
Isabella considers it a moment longer. “I want to help people or animals. Maybe be a nurse or lawyer.” Despite all that she went through, Isabella longs for an education; when we talk about my college years, she sits forward, engaged even though it scares her.
The question in Isabella’s case has always been where to lay blame. Some drop it on the shoulders of a 14-year-old girl who they say should have known better. They chastise the 21-year-old girl who hasn’t stopped calling out for justice, who’s still rebuilding herself from the rubble. They’d prefer it if she shut up, but it’s worth noting that she never has. Isabella still fights for her life.
Should we blame a school counselor, who despite her empathy, had her hands tied? A school resource officer who gave bad advice with good reasons? The principal who had no idea how to enforce Title IX, or the assistant principal who still doesn’t seem to believe Isabella? Does the fault lie with the Title IX Coordinator who’s now the Superintendent? With the two reckless young boys who had sex with a young girl and left her unconscious in the grass? Is it a problem with one district, or are similar stories echoing across all districts? The students who slandered Isabella and told her to kill herself? The lawyer who sued Isabella on behalf of her school district? Or does the blame rest on the law itself, on the limits of Title IX?
Where do the fault lines lie?