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A rape in Arlington — a girl’s life ruined and her name trashed — should leave us all ashamed

Through three years, job changes, multiple moves and even the birth of her daughter, Elizabeth Bruenig couldn’t let go of the story, couldn’t let go of the terrible thing that happened in high school — not to her but to another young woman.

The story of Amber Wyatt haunted Bruenig for more than a decade. Thankfully, Bruenig grew up to become a talented Washington Post columnist, and her telling of Wyatt’s story can now haunt us all.

Bruenig and Wyatt both attended James Martin High School in Arlington. And the crime Wyatt endured — the story Bruenig tells — forces each of us to ask questions not only about what happened 12 years ago in Arlington, but about our own experiences, our own younger selves.

Read this gut-twisting narrative in its entirety, not just for your sake, but for the sake of any young people in your life.

Police and medical records uncovered by Bruenig leave little doubt: On the night of Aug. 11, 2006, 16-year-old Amber Wyatt was raped in a back-roads storage shed. Wyatt has maintained ever since that her two attackers were older athletes who also attended James Martin.

In the aftermath of the attack, parents, teens and even institutions in Arlington were more interested in protecting their pretty bubble of student entitlement than in getting to the truth of what happened to a vulnerable 16-year-old.

Bruenig was a rising sophomore at the time, a year behind Wyatt. Although the journalist never met the cheerleader — she says she ran in the nerd crowd — she heard the rumors that swept through the campus of 3,350 students. And Bruenig never forgot the toxic way Wyatt was shamed for being the victim of a crime.

The power in Bruenig’s narrative, published Thursday, is not just the harrowing details she uncovered but her unflinching examination of the universal, if indirect, culpability — including her own — in ostracizing, even condemning, Wyatt.

The account of Amber Wyatt’s high school life is painfully familiar. Her family’s lifestyle was more modest than many of her classmates. She made good grades, but far more important to her was winning the approval of the cool kids. Like many of them, she partied hard, courtesy of alcohol and, at times, Xanax and pot.

As Bruenig tells it, on the night of the assault, Wyatt was among a crowd of students partying at an upscale home belonging to the parents of another cheerleader. As happens far too often, the mother was part of the scene.

Wyatt says she left with the two senior boys to grab some fast food, only to wind up at a large wooden shed, where the pair claimed to have a stash of beer.

There, Wyatt says, the attack occurred.  The assault and its aftermath — the rape exam and police interviews — is a burden that scars even the most resilient of young people. The days that followed were equally obscene.

“Friends of the accused turned on her, rumors vilified her, authorities failed her,” Bruenig writes.

Almost no one showed Wyatt compassion. Not content with ostracizing her, students humiliated her with taunts and text messages — some in allegiance to the two athletes and their clique, others just sucked into the prevailing lies.

Increasingly, cars showed up around Arlington, especially at the high school, with the word “FAITH” painted across the rear windshields. It was an acronym for “F--- Amber in the Head,” and another, even more vulgar, phrase.

When a campus investigation led to the drinking-related suspensions of a number of athletes, students blamed that on Wyatt too. She finally transferred to another school, leaving parents and students to smugly tell one another that she had recanted and, in fact, had made the whole thing up.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Blood alcohol results showed that Wyatt was too drunk to legally consent to sexual activity. Injuries to her genitals suggested that what occurred in the shed wasn’t consensual.

Yet a grand jury chose not to indict the two boys. Not only was the lead detective not called to testify, but also Wyatt did not get her wish to take the stand. Even though semen from one of the boys was found in Wyatt’s body, police never questioned either of them, according to Bruenig’s reporting.

As for Wyatt, after some terribly difficult years, she seems to be pulling together a good life. She is married to a man she met in recovery and is a teaching assistant for a forensic psychology course while she completes an undergraduate program at Texas State University.  

Let’s not kid ourselves. The public stoning that Wyatt suffered plays out regularly in schools across North Texas. How many of us have known a girl whose reputation and name were dragged through the mud by children and adults alike over rumors, half-truths and outright lies?

To some degree, we’ve all been guilty. We discount what’s right in front of our eyes in order to believe a distorted narrative, to glom onto the cool crowd, to buy into the most salacious version of things.

All of that creates a toxic community culture that mows down honestly imperfect young people like Amber Wyatt.

Although it’s too late to fix our own youthful failings, we can teach our teens to be better than that.  But first, read Elizabeth Bruenig’s story. Amber Wyatt deserves a lot of soul-searching from all of us.

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