The three military fathers sat at the commander's conference table, pleading for help, after their daughters told them they'd been sexually assaulted by a boy in their first-grade class at the U.S. Army base school in Germany.
The principal had known about the boy's behavior for months, they said, but the abuse continued.
The girls' parents had already turned to military police, child-abuse authorities and sex-assault specialists. The response was always the same, they said: Sorry this has happened; there's nothing we can do.
"It gives us a sense of hopelessness," one of the fathers, a soldier, said. "We can only do so much as parents."
Tens of thousands of children and teenagers live and attend school on U.S. military bases while their parents serve the country. Yet if they are sexually violated by a classmate, a neighborhood kid or a sibling, they often get lost in a legal and bureaucratic netherworld.
Because the children are civilians, military law doesn't apply. The federal legal system that typically enforces civilian law on base, though, isn't equipped or inclined to prosecute juveniles. And the Defense Department's education system affords them fewer protections than public schools if they are sexually attacked by a classmate on campus.
The Pentagon's response to addressing these child-on-child assaults stands in contrast to how it cracked down on sexual violence in the ranks more than a decade ago, following congressional scrutiny.
"If this would have been a soldier, things would have happened much differently," the soldier's wife said.
The Associated Press does not name sex assault victims without consent and extended that anonymity to three sets of parents who agreed to speak on the record. What happened at the German base school is further documented in sworn statements by the soldier, as well as other military records.
In late July 2015, the soldier's wife said she discovered their daughter was sexually assaulted at Grafenwoehr (GRAF'-en-vohr) Elementary School during the school year that had just ended. She said her daughter told her the boy had similarly violated at least five other girls.
Days later, she said, she learned from another family that the school had already known about the boy's sexual aggression. The family told her that the principal called them months earlier to say the boy sexually touched their daughter. That little girl also said the boy had targeted other first-graders, including the soldier's daughter, and the family said it shared the information with the principal.
But neither the principal nor his staff notified any of the girls' parents about the possible assaults, several families told AP. When the soldier and his wife met with the principal in early August, he insisted he had contacted the parents of every girl named and their daughter wasn't among them, they recalled.
"The one place you can feel safe with your child going is school," one of the mothers said, "and then you can't even trust school."
The assaults at Grafenwoehr Elementary were among more than 150 that weren't disclosed in a "serious incident" report to the Pentagon's school system headquarters, the AP found. Sexual attacks among the system's 71,000 students are supposed to be reported, but officials wouldn't explain why Grafenwoehr was missing.
The Pentagon also wouldn't allow the principal to speak with the AP, and he did not respond to direct requests for comment. The school system — known as the Department of Defense Education Activity, or DoDEA — said an investigation eventually showed Grafenwoehr Elementary's staff "took the appropriate actions to best meet the needs of all students involved."
AP began investigating sex abuse among military children and teens after readers of its 2017 investigation about student assaults in U.S. public schools reported even more complicated problems on bases.
When students are sexually assaulted in American public schools, they have legal protections under Title IX, a federal law that bans gender discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. An executive order in 2000 attempted to hold federal education programs, such as those run by the Pentagon, to Title IX's tenets but did not grant students the right to sue for damages or request outside investigations — the leverage often needed to get action.
The girls' parents also tried to seek help from two military support offices, Army criminal investigators and even the base commander. But, they said, they were told that nothing could be done because their daughters had been abused by another child or that it was a school matter.
Months after AP began questioning the school system's handling of student sex assaults, officials said they were developing new rules and guidance for reporting and responding to such violence. Officials also said the system had appointed additional staff to advise families on their rights and available resources, among other reforms.
Looking back, the soldier's wife said it was disheartening to know military children have so few protections. She and her husband have pressed on for the sake of her daughter and others like her.
"I don't want another family to have to deal with this," she said.
If you have a tip, comment or story to share about child-on-child sexual assault on U.S. military bases, please email: email@example.com. See AP's entire package of stories here: https://www.apnews.com/tag/HiddenVictims .