‘I’m taking back my story’: First, a sexual assault. Now, the Oregon teen says the system failed her⁠—twice.

As an Oregon teen grapples with the aftermath of finding justice for an assault 3 years ago, schools across Dane County are taking closer looks at how they're supporting and responding to sexual violence

OREGON, Wis. — When Bry Oppliger first published a video online in late November last year detailing her sexual assault while a freshman at Oregon High School, the now-senior accused the school and police department of failing her in the aftermath of reporting three years earlier.

Now, as schools across Dane County take closer looks at how they’re supporting and responding to sexual violence among students in their classrooms, she says she’s been failed once again: This time, in the process where she tried to hold the Oregon police officer accountable that she says first mishandled her report. A crucial piece of missing evidence–deleted body camera video–meant the department couldn’t find enough evidence to sustain the complaint from existing records and witnesses.

“I don’t want it to happen to anyone else,” she said in an interview with News 3 Now. “I’m just gonna keep pushing, keep going until I get the response that I want.”

The assault, the aftermath, and the video

In the moment the assault happened, Bry lost her power. In late November last year, she decided it was time to start taking it back. When Bry first went public, she sent her abuser the links. He blocked her; she didn’t care.

“It was a bit of closure for me: Just knowing that I had the power now; he doesn’t have that power over me anymore,” she explained. “I’m taking back my story.”

That story started in 2018 as a highschool freshman, when she went to her then-boyfriend’s housewarming party. He was a 17-year-old senior, and she told him before even going to the party: she wasn’t interested in getting physical.

When the party started winding down and she settled in to watch BoJack Horseman with her boyfriend, she tried to tell him no–again. He kept asking; she kept saying she wasn’t in the mood.

“Then, he just took it upon himself.”

In the moment as he started removing her clothes, she froze and “didn’t really do anything”, she recalled. She went home that night, and broke up with him a day or two later. She told no one except her older stepsister, who helped support her through those first few weeks of silence. But a couple months later, that changed.

“I heard another girl had gotten assaulted by the same guy,” she said. The girl was another freshman. “That’s when we ended up reporting it to our counselors….we kinda went through it together.”

From there, her YouTube video published three years later–and a following News 3 Now report in early December–detailed how she felt failed by the school resource officer during the meeting where both victims reported their assaults. She said he had told her that her abuser slept worse than her at night, and that when she had wanted to take time to think about pressing charges, he had later told her it was too late. She talked about how it hadn’t ended there: she had been left seated next to her abuser in one of her classes, and had to leave that class herself instead of her assaulter. To this day, she believes the abuser was never seriously disciplined (the school can’t comment on juvenile discipline, and can’t tell students how they may or may not have disciplined another student.)

“If there was more than one person coming forward to the school, telling them they had been assaulted by this guy and he was still walking around the school, there should be repercussions,” Bry said. “They did not suspend, expel, put him on pre-expulsion, or anything.”

It felt like insult to injury–and it was why, three years later, she was finally ready to publish a YouTube video about her experiences–one that would pick up about 10,500 views and prompt students to reach out to her expressing similar experiences, some with that same officer. The reception since then in her school, she said, has been one of overwhelming support.

And it led to the next step: a reopened investigation, and a complaint where missing evidence meant nothing could be corroborated.

Missing evidence, unsubstantiated complaint

Bry ultimately made the decision not to press charges after Oregon police chief Jennifer Pagenkopf personally reopened the investigation after Bry published her YouTube video detailing her story of assault three years earlier.

“I’ve had three years to think about it,” she explained to News 3. “I’ve had time to sit with it. And now that I’ve gotten the option to press charges, I kind of came to terms with the fact that there probably wouldn’t be any evidence of it happening–and if there was evidence of it happening, it would be long gone by now.”

According to police documents, the Dane County district attorney’s office told the police chief the case would qualify as a 2nd degree sexual assault of a child, a felony with a statute of limitations of six years. “I just want to do what I can to help,” Pagenkopf detailed in the incident report of what she told someone related to the victim, whose name was redacted.

The family sat down with police and school officials to discuss next steps, where Bry explained that her goal was not to press charges but to understand what had gone wrong when she had wanted to years before. As many as five or six students had come to Bry since her video posted, she told News 3 Investigates, saying they had experienced similar issues with the school resource officer at the time.

In the incident reports, Chief Pagenkopf encouraged Bry to file a citizen’s complaint if she felt the case had been mishandled. Pagenkopf noted in her reports that she asked a sergeant and a lieutenant to review a separate possible sexual assault case the same officer had handled for a different victim, where the victim had chosen not to go forward with charges. A “full review” of reports and video from the case found the officer had kept a “soft, calm and supportive demeanor” with the victim, and had asked appropriate investigative questions, according to Pagenkopf’s notes.

Overall, the department has handled about 14 sexual assault allegations from the Oregon High School in the last five years. The officer at the time had only a standard police academy training and department field training. Since Bry’s video, the current SRO (who was not the school resource officer at the time of Bry’s complaint) underwent two hours of trauma-informed sexual assault training.

Bry filed her complaint about the former SRO, who still works for the department, in late December. Ultimately, she would come to feel the system had failed her–again.

In a letter to Bry dated January 25, 2022, Pagenkopf told Bry that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove her complaints, and they were closing the internal investigation as “not sustained”. The chief told Bry there wasn’t evidence she’d come back to the officer a second time asking to press charges (an encounter that Bry says happened informally outside a classroom, and thus may not have generated a report). Additionally, the chief used as evidence that it was “not department practice” to turn people away from reporting incidents.

But crucially, the chief said the body cam footage for Bry’s own interview with the officer that had led to her complaints had been “purged”, leading to no substantiating evidence in Bry’s complaint.

“I don’t think people realize how much it hurts,” Bry said. “To be traumatized and then be retraumatized over and over again. Just seeing that (the officer) is still there and nothing’s been done about it.”

She questions why the footage was purged. The OPD’s policies for keeping body cam footage stipulates that uncategorized video must be kept for 120 days. However, it’s unclear from the policies how long it would be kept once footage is categorized with a case–as the interview in Bry’s case should have been. The policies stipulate that for those videos, the retention period ranges “from 120 days to ‘until manually deleted’.” (The chief didn’t respond to a follow-up question to clarify the policy.)

In Bry’s eyes, the system has failed her–twice. “You could tell they definitely took the officer’s side, and it was definitely a biased investigation,” she said.

Chief Pagenkopf didn’t directly address questions about how the complaint investigation was handled in a statement nearly identical to the one she issued for a story three months ago, where she said the department supported victims and encouraged them to report as soon as possible.* She directed questions about the complaint investigation to their policy that outlines how complaints are handled. In her letter to Bry, however, she said they had reviewed all of the available information and interviewed the witnesses (such as the school counselor and her mother) that she listed.

“Please be assured that we take citizen complaints very seriously,” she wrote.

Schools take a closer look at policies

As Bry continues her battle to find closure and justice after her assault, schools across Dane County have been reckoning with their policies amid a series of walkouts in the last semester protesting how sexual assaults were handled in the district.

Hundreds of students participated in walkouts at Madison’s high schools, and students in Sun Prairie joined in solidarity.

“It is a wonderful thing to watch students advocate for themselves and the services that they want and need,” said Dane Pellebon, co-executive director of the Rape Crisis Center in Dane County. Schools are responding in the aftermath, she said: they’re working with schools across the county, including Madison and Oregon, to help educate school administration and students in the available resources they offer and the kinds of policies that can be implemented for survivors.

“There is an awakening that is happening,” Pellebon said. “It started with the #MeToo movement, and we had a time period in there where most of what we were concerned about is COVID. But as the students are back in schools and as the problems that have been there all along are having light shed on them, we are really seeing an activation in a new way.”

In a statement to News 3 Now in response to this article, Oregon School District’s communications director Erika Mundinger said they had partnered with the Rape Crisis Center in similar efforts.

“We have conducted survivor circles, school assemblies, individual counseling and professional development for counselors and administrators,” Mundinger wrote. She didn’t respond to specific questions posed from Bry’s statements; Bry said she wanted an apology from the school in how they’d handled her case three years earlier. “Please understand that we are not able to discuss any specific matters due to both our legal and ethical responsibility to protect student privacy.”

For Bry, it was the lack of information about her options and the criminal justice system that stalled her from taking immediate action three years earlier. She feels neither the school nor the police fully explained to her how charges would work–things like, for example, she would not have to face her abuser in court right away; that process could take months and give her time to prepare.

It’s those kinds of resources and information gaps that schools are working with the RCC to address, Pellebon said. But at the same time, justice can look different for everyone.

“Our concern is what happens with the survivors of sexual violence; the school’s concern is what happens on both sides,” she noted. “Sometimes that is a delicate balance, and sometimes justice doesn’t look like how a survivor may want it to look.”

Rape Crisis Center Hotlines

English: (608) 251-7273

Spanish: (608) 258-2567

*Full response from Oregon Police Department:

When an allegation of sexual assault is presented to personnel from our Police Department, particularly one where the victim is a juvenile or the perpetrator is a juvenile, we treat these matters with exceptional seriousness.

It is critical for our community to know they can rely on us to help a victim and to thoroughly investigate such incidents. Our officers receive specialized training related to violent crimes, crimes against children, best practices in investigating sexual assaults, understanding trauma, and conducting child field interviews. Our personnel are trained to direct services to help the victim. 

Our personnel investigate the matter thoroughly as the situation permits, respecting the interests of the victim, including the victim’s privacy and statutory and Constitutional rights under Marsy’s law (passed in April of 2020). Many factors can affect our investigations. I am cognizant of the great anguish that a victim goes through, and we strive to be supportive, respectful, and dignified in our treatment of them. Our agency and our officers stand ready and willing to work with a victim at any time that the victim chooses. With that said, our law enforcement investigative process and protecting the interests of the victim are always best served when the victim contacts us as soon as possible after the event occurs so that we may provide important assistance to the victim and so that we may investigate the matter and preserve the integrity of evidence, witness information, and other details for purposes of effectively investigating and for prosecuting an offender.

In situations involving victims or suspects who are children or students, our Department is very sensitive to the greater privacy interests that protect both the juvenile victim and a juvenile suspect. The law does restrain our ability to comment on these issues and specific cases, and we must comply with the law which favors the protection of the privacy of children.

Photojournalist Brian Mesmer contributed to this report.