In The Woods: 'A Part Of Myself Died Here And Will Always Be Here,' Former Myers Park Student Says
It’s a hot July day and the sun is beating down on the asphalt that belongs to a Myers Park High School parking lot. It’s summer break and campus is quiet. Face one direction, and you see the empty school buildings.
Turn 180 degrees, and you’re on a path that leads to the woods.
"This pathway right here was where I was taken into the woods," says 22-year-old Joy Poe. That is not her real name; WFAE does not identify sexual assault victims without their consent.
She graduated from Myers Park in 2017. She says when she was 14 years old, she was forced in the woods by a classmate who assaulted her at about the same time as the school day was being dismissed.
"So at the end of the day, there would have been staff and security out here directing traffic where they would have seen me being taken in right there," she says.
She walks down the path where she was led into the woods about eight years ago. About five minutes in, she stops and points to a particular spot.
She remembers being here on Dec. 20, 2013. It was the last day of school before winter break. She remembers how cloudy it was. This is the area where her classmate took her off the path and behind trees.
"I mean, this is a very lonely, dark place, and it felt like that at the time — and it still feels that way for many people that go to Myers Park," she said.
And it’s also the place that defined her teenage years. Before she gave her impassioned statement at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting earlier this month, she says she came back to the woods.
"I wanted to remember that girl and what she went through. I say, 'that girl,' but it was me," she says. "It clicked to me when I was in the parking lot thinking, 'Oh my God, there were so many people here, so many adults here that could have done something,' especially considering the reputation this area has always had — not just while I was here, but before and after. They should have been aware of that."
Part of the reason she decided not to report her sexual assault was because of a message she says that rang loud and clear from the school administration. She recalls an assembly where principal Mark Bosco told students that the school was not responsible for what happened in the woods. That assembly is referenced in two lawsuits.
The lawsuits say Bosco “reportedly told students 'some people go into the woods and don’t come back happy.' He warned female students that MPHS and its officials 'could not protect them' if they went into the woods with a male student.”
"It reinforced my intuition to not come forward more," she says. "At the time, I believed through things they had said on the morning announcements and such, that they just weren't legally responsible for the woods. So they couldn't help me even though they wanted to.
"But the assembly really showed that that was not the case and they just didn't care about what happened here for anyone."
So, who is legally responsible for these wooded areas? WFAE reached out to CMS to ask that question on July 15, but have yet to get an answer. WFAE also asked for an interview with CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston, but that request was denied.
Land records show that parts of the wooded area are owned by CMS. Parts of the woods go beyond that reach and include some county greenways.
In an email to WFAE, Lee Jones, director of the Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation Department, said the property is owned by CMS. He pointed out there is a greenway easement throughout the property and the greenway trail is maintained by the county.
Jones wrote, “We have not been made aware of anything related to assaults on the greenway in this section. CMS has not reached out to us regarding any safety issues.”
Where Joy Poe says she was assaulted was in the bounds of CMS property, according to land records. She wants the school to take responsibility for this area and ensure it's a safe place for students.
"Someone needs to claim this area," she says. "Myers Park loves to brag about how it's like a small college and it's very spacious and we have these beautiful woods. Well, you need to take accountability for what happens here — the good and the bad — because people are being hurt."
And it goes beyond what happened to her in the woods, she says. After the incident, she wasn’t the same person. It wasn’t uncommon for her to break out in tears in class, and yet, a teacher never asked if she was OK, she says. She feels, at times, a great amount of guilt for not reporting what happened to her. She says she knows other women who were also assaulted by the same classmate.
So on the anniversary of her assault, she returns to this spot.
"I come to this general area and I leave a printed-out photo of myself just days before the incident happened," she says. "And I have my time to kind of mourn the person that I was before it happened."
She went on to say: "When people ask me about it, I tell them and it sounds dramatic, but a part of myself died here and will always be here. And while I'm here, not only do I feel the presence of who I once was, but the presence of everyone else who's been hurt here."
Now she’s waiting to see who will take responsibility for student safety in this wooded area and responsibility for what has already happened.
So is the 14-year-old version of herself, who was left behind.