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National

Maryland High School Rape Case Highlights Debate Over Immigration

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The alleged rape of a Maryland high school student has become part of the national debate over immigration policies. Police say a 14-year-old girl was raped in a school bathroom by two other students and at least one of them was in the U.S. illegally. Carmel Delshad of member station WAMU reports.

CARMEL DELSHAD, BYLINE: Authorities say the alleged rape happened in a boys bathroom in a remote part of Rockville High School in Maryland. Montgomery County police arrested 18-year-old Henry Sanchez-Milian and 17-year-old Jose Montano. Both are charged in the rape. Immigration officials confirm that Sanchez-Milian is from Guatemala and entered the U.S. illegally before enrolling at the high school last fall.

At a press conference this week, school Superintendent Jack Smith said Montgomery County does what most other school systems in the country do - they follow the law that prevents the state from asking about the immigration status of incoming students.

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JACK SMITH: What comes down here is that we serve every student that walks in our door. We are a public school system, and we serve all of our students when they come to us.

DELSHAD: Rockville High School has 1,300 students and is less than an hour away from Washington D.C. As coverage of this incident has grown, especially on social media, it's reached all the way to the White House. Press Secretary Sean Spicer addressed it during a briefing with reporters.

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MCEVERS: Part of the reason that the president has made illegal immigration and crackdown such a big deal is because of tragedies like this. This is why he's passionate about this because people are victims of these crimes in terms of them. They're victims of the economic piece. There's a national security impact. But immigration pays its toll on our people.

DELSHAD: That connection - people in the country illegally and crimes - is something that came up at a community meeting this week. The gathering was attended by scores of parents and concerned residents who voiced frustration about school safety, not so much about illegal immigration. Again, Superintendent Smith.

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SMITH: This is not a conversation about immigration. This is a conversation about a horrible event that happened to a young woman in this school that two other students were engaged in and so let's not be confused or let it get politicized.

DELSHAD: Across the country, sexual assaults on school campuses are very rare. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 13 percent of public schools reported a serious violent incident and of those, rape or attempted rape made up a tinier fraction - less than 1 percent.

Denise Fredricks (ph) has a son who goes to Rockville High School. For her, this incident isn't about immigration. It's about crime.

DENISE FREDERICKS: We live in this community because of the diversity not in spite of it.

DELSHAD: A lawyer for the 18-year-old says the encounter was consensual and that his client will plead not guilty. Both suspects are due in court within the next two weeks. For NPR News, I'm Carmel Delshad in Rockville, Md. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.