My Daughter’s Secret Tickling Game: The Story Behind Tennessee’s New Law

by Brooke Wilkerson
Originally Published: 
children getting on school bus

Did you just shudder when you read that title?

Imagine if your five-year-old daughter came home from school one day to tell you that she had a “secret tickling game” with a 12-year-old on her school bus. It was absolutely horrifying and caused me to partner with Senator Shane Reeves to create a new law regarding school bus video footage.

In August of 2019, my daughter was so excited to be starting kindergarten. She wasn’t just excited about moving up a grade (she was in preschool at the same school), she was mostly excited about finally being able to ride the school bus.

As someone who grew up riding the school bus in a super rural town, I didn’t think it was a bad idea. It would certainly make things easier on me, since I had two smaller children at home, too, who I had to take with me to drop her off and pick her up from school. She was so excited that I couldn’t tell her no.

So she started kindergarten, and started riding the bus, and she was on cloud nine. Every day when she got off of the bus she was hyped up from the excitement, ready to tell me all about her day and about the friend that she had made on the bus.

But I never thought to ask her how old her friend was.

She told me stories nearly every day about this friend. The school bus that she rode had tinted windows, for some reason, so I was never able to see where she was sitting at when she got on or off the bus. I had told her to sit towards the front, and assumed that’s what she did. I also assumed that the bus driver would enforce that unwritten law, just like my bus drivers did growing up. Even if the bus drivers didn’t enforce it, I remembered from my own experience that the big kids didn’t hesitate to kick the little kids out of the back of the bus anyway — so, again, I assumed she was sitting in the front.

Every day after getting home from school, I would ask my daughter how her day was, how the bus ride was. Mostly out of curiosity. Sending my first born to school all day long made me want to be a fly on the wall to see how it was going.

Her answers were usually about the same. But, one day, in September, less than two months after being in kindergarten, her answers were different. Very different.

I asked my daughter how her day was. I don’t remember her answer. I asked her how the bus ride was and I could see her body stiffen. She looked at me as if I had just caught her in a lie or with her hand in a cookie jar. I don’t remember what she said. I just remember how she looked at me.

I asked about the bus ride again; this time, she didn’t say anything. I asked her if something had happened, and she started to cry. I was confused. I thought that maybe she had gotten in trouble on the bus for something silly, and being the extra-sensitive girl that she is, she was likely overreacting.

When I asked her why she was crying, she said that it was because she thought she was in trouble. Again, I was confused. I told her that she wasn’t in trouble — I was just asking her how her day was. Had something happened?

She told me that she wasn’t supposed to tell me. Her “friend” had told her not to tell her mommy. “Not to tell me what?” I asked, and she said, “Our secret tickling game.”

Nick Quan/Unsplash

I wanted to throw up. I was shocked. I was NOT expecting that. Inside, I was freaking out, but I knew that I had to stay calm. Surely this was a misunderstanding. Kindergarteners tickle each other all the time — it’s not a big deal. But her body language was telling me a different story. It was telling me to listen.

We spent the next ten minutes going over what this “secret tickling game” entailed. Never have I been so thankful that I heeded the advice of strangers on the internet who said to teach your kids the proper names of their anatomy, because when I had to ask my daughter, point blank, “Did your friend touch your vagina?” there was no confusion about what I was referring to.

We went through all of those questions, and I was somewhat relieved when she told me that the friend had not touched her inappropriately. It did seem to be innocent tickling. So, why did her friend tell her not to tell her mom? Something wasn’t right.

I then learned that my five-year-old daughter had been riding in the back of the bus with her friend. She would start out in the front of the bus, then her friend would motion for her to sit in the back.

The friend was 12 years old.

School administrators were already out for the day, so I immediately sent an email to the principal letting her know that I would be there first thing in the morning, and I was.

I had a short meeting with the principal and assistant principal of her school and explained what she had told me. They understood completely. They also shared with me the concern that if a 12-year-old is saying these things to another child, that there’s a possibility that the 12-year-old is being, or has been, abused.

I was assured that they would start looking into the incident right away and they would call me to let me know. I asked if the bus had cameras and if I could view the video footage, and I was told that I could not. That bothered me. My child may or may not have been sexually abused on her school bus, but I was not allowed to view the video footage for myself? That didn’t sit right with me.

The more I started thinking about it, the more it bothered me. What are you supposed to do when something like this happens — if anything even had happened? Had I known, for sure, that something had happened, I would call the police. Should I call the police anyway to help find out? For two months, my daughter had been riding the bus with her “friend.” What if I was too late? What if she was being touched on her school bus?

Jack Schwartz/Reshot

Throughout that day, I made several phone calls. First, to the local sheriff’s office, who told me that they couldn’t help me because a crime had not been committed. I was confused, because we weren’t sure if a crime had been committed or not, so how could they just write this off? I asked them if I should file a police report and they said it wasn’t necessary — again, because a crime had not been committed. I was furious. I was sure that I was not overreacting. I wasn’t asking them to go arrest the kid; I was just asking that they help me find out if anything had happened or not.

So I asked them if they could make the school district turn over the school bus camera footage to me, and they said that they could not. They claimed that it was basically out of their control and up to the school system.

I called a random lawyer in town and asked if they had any advice on what to do. They were equally disturbed, and recommended that I call child services and file a report. This wouldn’t ensure that I could see the footage, but if an investigation was started, they would look at the footage themselves.

I called DCS and made a report. The thing about making a report is that DCS will make the decision on whether or not to start an investigation. Basically, they decide if it’s worthwhile.

While on the phone with the representative, I could tell that it was not going to be investigated. Towards the end of the call, the lady told me, “Honey, she’s five years old. If something had happened, she would’ve told you.”

I was furious. I’m no sexual abuse expert, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t always work like that. Not only was she condescending, but she made me feel like I was wrong for being concerned. I was correct; they decided to not investigate the situation.

It was midday at this point, and I was dying to hear back from the school, but trying to be patient as they did their jobs. I decided to take a trip to the bus garage to see what I could find out. Again, I was told that I could not review the footage, but I learned many things. I learned that this particular bus had a lot of issues. What those issues were, I wasn’t sure. I also learned that the bus driver was no longer employed as of that morning.

That’s right. The same day that I reported this incident to my daughter’s school, the bus driver was either fired or had quit. Was this just a coincidence?

kristen prahl/Reshot

I also learned that my daughter’s school bus had been pulled over by a TDOT officer while the kids were on the bus. The officer alleged that the school bus driver was not wearing his seat belt, but the bus driver said otherwise. The two had apparently exchanged some words before the officer got off of the bus. It seems to me that if your child’s school bus is pulled over for any reason, parents should be notified.

After that, I went home and waited. School was let out and I still hadn’t heard anything. I was so anxious about what was going on that I couldn’t fathom waiting another day for them to call me, so I called the school myself. When I got the assistant principal on the phone, she said that they had just sat down in a meeting to discuss this with other school administrators and the school resource officer. I asked, again, if I could review the bus footage myself and I was told that I could not, unless I obtained a subpoena. She said that there was a law that prohibited parents from viewing school bus video footage. This was ironic, because I would have to get a subpoena from the sheriff’s office, who didn’t even want me to file a report. So how does someone get a subpoena then?

The most upsetting part was that the assistant principal told me that she would have the school resource officer look into the situation, but that it was homecoming weekend, so it may be next week before he got back to me. I was furious. I honestly could not believe that homecoming was taking priority over a possible sex abuse incident on a school bus.

Fortunately, the school resource officer overheard that comment and called me that night. He told me that if it were his child, he would not want to wait all weekend to find out something, so he went ahead and reviewed the video footage from the day that my daughter said those things to me. I was relieved. I felt like someone was finally on my side, and understood what I was saying.

But the relief was temporary when I realized that he wouldn’t be reviewing any more video footage. He had only looked at that one day, and didn’t see anything wrong. It was an honest effort on his part, but I told him that I would like the previous two months reviewed as well. Maybe nothing happened on that particular day, but what about all of the other days? He agreed, at first, but then decided it was best to just report the incident to DCS. He was under the assumption that if a school administrator reported an incident that it had to be investigated, but he was wrong. DCS refused to investigate because both children involved were under the age of 13. That was their basis for denial. Again, I was furious.

The resource officer also told me that the superintendent was livid when he heard of this incident and said that they were going to get that bus “under control.” Apparently, when the superintendent viewed the school bus video footage, he “nearly had a heart attack” because of the kids being wild and rambunctious on the bus.

When I asked about the bus driver and his employment, I was told that it was a “mutual separation” that was unrelated to this incident and that there was a new bus driver. I was also told that there would be an aide placed on the bus temporarily; however, I would never let my daughter ride on that bus again.

Not giving up, I contacted the district attorney’s office, who told me that the sheriff’s office would have to issue a subpoena and start an investigation for them to get involved. The man specifically told me that it was “not their function” and that “we do not assist in bringing charges, we only prosecute once charges are brought” by the sheriff’s office. Again, no help from them, either.

I was back to the drawing board. The resource officer had reviewed one day of footage. I was prohibited from viewing the footage myself. The sheriff’s office refused to assist, and DCS refused to investigate. But I just had to know. If nothing happened, I was okay with that. But I had to know that I wasn’t missing something.

Over the weekend, I tried several times to talk to the sheriff directly. I thought that if I could just get him on the phone and explain what was going on that he would understand the importance of this issue. But he was a hard man to reach. I called and had to leave him a message because he was supposedly busy with Homecoming festivities.

I called a lawyer who was a former district attorney in Wisconsin, Dan Necci with Horlacher-Necci Law Firm, and he shared my anger. He agreed that this situation was being mishandled and offered to help me out by sending a strongly-written letter to both the school system and the sheriff’s office. He basically threatened to sue the sheriff’s office and school system if they did not properly investigate it. The DA sent a letter back stating that this was “the first I’ve heard about this,” which was not true. Like I said earlier, I had called the DA’s office and spoken to someone. When the sheriff’s office received the letter from my lawyer, I miraculously got a call back from a detective there — still not the sheriff.

I was told that when I called, I should’ve used the phrase “sexual abuse” or something like that, and that the officer who took my first call would’ve known to direct the call to an investigator, but I didn’t. He told me that officers don’t receive much training when it comes to sexual abuse, so basically, unless I used a keyword, it wouldn’t have been properly routed to the correct person.

The detective had me come down to the station, where I gave a statement about what happened. He told me that he was going to talk to the other student involved to see if he could get the student to confess, but if the student did not, then we could consider pressing charges. Now, don’t get me wrong — while I wanted action, I didn’t want to slap charges on a 12-year-old if it wasn’t justified. I just wanted to know what happened! And, maybe nothing happened! That was okay with me, too.

But over the weekend, I tried to casually talk to my daughter to see if there was anything she hadn’t told me, and there was. I had asked her if she gave this student a hug every day and she told me that she did. I asked her if she gave her a kiss every day and she said she didn’t, but that the 12-year-old had “kissed her on the lips” and that she didn’t like it. She said that she thought the student was going to kiss her on the cheek, but instead it was her lips and that she “wiped it off.”

Over the weekend, I realized that there is no law that states that schools have to maintain video footage or how long they should keep the footage. That meant that, depending on how often the school deleted footage, we could be losing some of those videos every day. It was during this time that my lawyer also sent an email to the director of schools, demanding that all of the video footage from that bus be retained. But we learned that there was only video footage available for the previous two weeks.

Before I got any sort of update from the sheriff’s office, I got a call from a different detective who would now be handling the case. This detective took a completely different (and much more logical) approach to the situation. He wanted to have my daughter speak with a psychologist for a forensic interview, to see if she would reveal any sort of sexual abuse.

During the interview, I was not allowed to be in the room, or even watch or listen to the interview. What was frustrating was that the detective said the interviewer “didn’t know how to ask about the kiss.” He said that they can’t point blank ask a question like that, because it’s considered leading. So, the closest she got to asking was, “Did she ever touch your face?” and my daughter told her “no.” I was told that we “didn’t have anything” and that nothing else could be done. They would not be speaking to the 12-year-old, or taking any further action.

Regardless, I still wanted the damn tapes reviewed! It really seemed like a simple and logical request to me, and it appeared that no one wanted to take the time to review the footage. So, I requested numerous times for them to let me review them. If they didn’t want to do it, I’d gladly take it off of their hands, just to have some peace of mind. The detective told me that he would finish reviewing the tapes and be in touch.

I waited two weeks before I finally called the detective back myself. He didn’t remember who I was. Now, it’s important to state here that I live in a small, rural town; not a big city like Nashville. We have a population of around 11,000. I understand that the police have a lot on their plate, but seeing as he was supposed to be working on this case, it seemed like he should at least remember who I was. When I refreshed his memory, he told me that he had “hundreds of cases” and wanted to know how he could help me. He had completely forgotten that he was supposed to be reviewing those tapes. He told me that he was looking at them when he had time, but that he hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary.

I had enough. It was now October 30th, so I called the sheriff, again, and left another voicemail. When he returned my call, I demanded to review the video footage myself. The detective on the case called me back and said they would permit me to view the footage, but there was a catch: I would have to go to the sheriff’s office while that detective was there (on his schedule) to review the footage. This was difficult, as I’m a stay-at-home mom with three kids and a husband who works. I was able to carve out about two hours a day, a few days a week, where I could make that work.

The first time I went there, it took over 30 minutes for the detective to set up a laptop that actually worked. He was never able to get the audio to work, though, and the dates on the tapes were not right. It was a disorganized mess. The only way to sort them out was to view every one. On another day, I had to wait over 40 minutes for the detective to return because he was out on a call.

The superintendent was correct. The bus was out of control. The kids were all over the place — climbing over the seats, walking down the aisle, jumping, fighting, kicking. I even witnessed one child being assaulted by an older child, and no one helped him. It was awful. Along with that, for many of the tapes, there was a large black blob in the middle of the video that blocked the view for most of the time. The videos were saved in five-minute clips, and there were over 2,000 clips to sort through.

I spent several days at the sheriff’s office reviewing footage before I was satisfied that I had seen enough. I don’t believe that my daughter was sexually abused on that bus, but I do believe that she was on the brink of being abused. I’ve also learned more about the student and their family, and given police records that I found, it’s likely that the student was being abused or had been abused at one point in time.

This entire situation should’ve been much simpler. I should not have had to fight for someone — anyone — to take this matter seriously and actually investigate. Situations like this may not be common, but that’s exactly why our law enforcement agencies and school systems should be doing better. What do you do if you believe your child may have been sexually abused? You call the police. But what do you do if they tell you they can’t help you?

It was because of this fiasco that I reached out to several politicians in my state. I sent them a long email explaining what happened and that I wanted their help in making sure this doesn’t happen again. I wanted to create a law in the state of Tennessee.

Senator Shane Reeves responded, and after meeting with him, he was 100% on board with this cause. In fact, he told me that if it were his wife, she’d be at the school flipping tables (I think she and I would get along great).

Together, Senator Shane Reeves and I created Senate Bill 182 (HB 248) that required schools to allow parents to view video footage if there was an incident on their child’s school bus, under the supervision of a school official. This bill also mandates that every school district in the state of Tennessee create a policy for how long they retain video footage from school buses as well.

In March of 2019, I testified before the Senate committee to tell them why I created this bill with Senator Reeves and, needless to say, it went well. You can view my testimony here.

After listening to my testimony, Senator Mike Bell told me that he would’ve “horse whipped” half the educational institution in Marshall county if that had been his child.

On April 1st, every member of the committee in the Senate voted in favor of the bill. Then, on April 18th, carried by Representative Rick Tillis, the bill was passed 97-1 and became law in the state of Tennessee. (Click on SB0182 to jump to my testimony and be sure to listen to what Senator Mike Bell had to say!).

I created a law in Tennessee so that this doesn’t happen to someone again. These are our children and we have a right to see footage when an incident occurs.

Interviews and details of the new law are available at these links:

Article by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government:

Article by the Tennessee Star:

The details of the new law:

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