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Dart Award Winner

Rape in a Small Town

Winter 2002

Laura used to love school.

Laura used to love school.

She loved going to basketball, hockey, and football games. She loved the dances and spirit week activities. She made the honor roll every quarter, and she felt as if she were friends with everybody.

But those days were over now.

Many students believed Nick couldn't have raped anyone. The boy they knew wasn't capable of such a crime. And they told Laura so.

You wanted it, they told her. You liked it.

Laura stayed at home, crying on the couch. People said she cried too much.

She tried to stay involved in activities. People said she couldn't have been raped if she was playing soccer and attending basketball games.

After a while, Laura stopped caring what people thought about her. She also stopped caring about schoolwork, and fell behind.

The dozens of honor roll certificates her mother used to tuck away were replaced by a stack of counseling receipts.

Thoughts of the rape consumed the family.

Day after day, Laura would come home from school, curl up in a ball on the sofa and sob.

She was afraid to be alone, so her father would leave work early, using his vacation and sick time so he could be home after school.

She would wake up in the middle of the night, sobbing, and her mother would get up and go lie down next to her, comforting her until she could sleep.

"Sobbing. Sobbing for hours," her father says. "People don't see that part of it."

* * * * * *

Richard Trogisch, the principal of Burrillville High School, has never seen a school community so polarized in his 20 years as an administrator.

When he heard about students harassing Laura, he spoke to them immediately.

"You can't do this," he would say. "You're hurting Laura. You don't know what the facts are. I don't know the facts. Please stop."

Sometimes Nick's friends protested, saying they hadn't said anything directly to her face.

"Then they got into the point where 'she deserves this,' blah, blah, blah," Trogisch says. "And I said, 'We're not going there. You are not allowed to harass this girl. It's up to the judicial system to decide."

Kelley, the school nurse, says she talked frequently with Laura and the other two young women who had accused Nick. Laura also spoke openly with other students.

"She didn't keep it a secret because she wanted to educate other girls, to protect them, too," Kelley says. "But, you see, it was a hard thing because when your family is right up there in town — you couldn't say 'Boo' about this young man."

Kelley thinks many in the school community, and beyond, need to be educated about what rape victims go through. They'll have flashbacks. They'll have guilt. They may have trouble sleeping. They become hypervigilant. They may question their own sexuality. Some just give up. Some move away from their hometown.

And they'll wonder if they led the attacker to do this.

"No," Kelley says. "If you said no, no means no."

People need to know, she says, about what victims experience "so they don't have this skewed belief that it's the girl's fault."

* * * * * *

Laura's family began to feel like they had a disease.

The way her father sees it, people don't want to think this kind of thing actually happens. So if they avoid it, they can tell themselves it will never happen to them.

Laura's family had moved to Burrillville — "a nice bedroom community," her father thought — in 1994 and worked to settle in.

Her parents encouraged Laura and her two brothers to get to know people and to be part of the community. They played sports, and their father coached football. Their mother attended games and talked with other parents.

Now, on bad days, they would shop for groceries in a neighboring town just so they wouldn't have to run into people they knew, or overhear comments in the local IGA about "that Laura girl."

We just haven't been here long enough, her parents say. What would have been enough? they wonder.

Many residents say you're considered a newcomer unless you were born here. Like the Plante family, whose roots in Burrillville run deep.

At least two of Nick's great-grandparents were born here and died here when Nick was a child. His maternal grandfather, born and raised in Burrillville, owned an auto dealership in town for 34 years. Generations of local families bought their cars from him. Nick's paternal grandparents raised six children who grew up spending summers at the family camp on Pascoag Reservoir.

Nick counts many cousins as his closest friends. Some members of his extended family have also been his teachers and coaches.

Laura began to beg her parents to move away from Burrillville, a place she had grown to hate.

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Kate Bramson

  • Kate Bramson, a 1993 graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, has been on the Providence Journal reporting staff since August, 2002. Prior to joining the Journal, she was the education writer for the Duluth News Tribune in Minnesota. From October, 1995 to Feburary, 1997, she was news editor for Budapest Week and The Budapest Sun in Hungary.

Bob Thayer

  • Bob Thayer is an award-winning feature photographer who has been on the Providence Journal staff since 1978. He is a graduate of Bowdoin College and the Columbia School of Journalism.

Mimi Burkhardt

  • Mimi Burkhardt has served in several roles since joining the Providence Journal's copy desk in 1980. She has been night metro editor, an assistant city editor, and a projects editor. For the past three years she has been a training editor, working closely with the newspaper's two-year interns and other reporters on the state staff. It was in her role as a consultive editor she worked with Kate Bramson on the award-winning story.

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