A civil lawsuit working its way through the federal appeals process alleges that a 14-year-old middle school girl was raped after school officials used her as bait to try to catch a male student “in the act” after she reported his sexual harassment.
With growing pressure on college campuses to better handle complaints of sexual harassment, assault, and domestic violence, the case serves as a reminder that such problems crop up at disturbing rates among children and teens as well.
“Sexual violence shows up as early as elementary school ... and people need to understand that ... violent [adult] predators who sexually abuse ... grow up in a culture that is pretty indifferent to the way we treat violence against women,” says Lisa Maatz, a vice president of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in Washington. She adds that she’s glad to see that recent events – such as the controversy over the NFL’s handling of the Ray Rice case – have helped to start break through that indifference.
Among students in Grades 7-12, 48 percent experienced some form of sexual harassment over the course of a school year, a 2011 AAUW report found, based on a nationally representative sample of nearly 2,000 students. Only 9 percent reported what happened to an adult at school.
The lawsuit contends that Sparkman Middle School in Madison County, Ala., had a policy of not punishing sexual harassment unless students admitted to it or the harassment was witnessed.
When the girl told a teacher’s aide that a boy had been harassing her and asking her to meet him in the bathroom for sex, the aide suggested she meet him so that school officials could then go in to witness and stop the harassment, the lawsuit says. But after alerting an assistant principal to the plan, the aide wasn’t quick enough to find officials willing to step into the bathroom, and by the time they did arrive, the boy had allegedly sodomized the girl.
The boy had been reported and disciplined before for sexual harassment and other problematic behaviors at Sparkman and a previous school.
The plaintiff transferred to another school, her grades slipped, and she has felt unsafe and depressed, her lawyers say. Her guardian sued the school board for damages under Title IX, the federal law barring sex discrimination in education, claiming school officials were aware he posed a risk and failed to act reasonably in response. The lawsuit also includes constitutional and state law claims against the school board and officials.
Judge T. Michael Putnam of US District Court in Alabama blocked the federal claims from going forward. While acknowledging the “tragic and horrific harm” the girl suffered, he ruled that the school officials didn’t meet the legal standard for knowing of serious or pervasive harassment and acting with deliberate indifference.
The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) recently joined the case to appeal that ruling to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The US Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the plaintiff’s behalf.
“The school’s policy that perpetrators of sexual harassment be ‘caught in the act’ allowed the school to turn a blind eye to ongoing sexual harassment and violence,” said Fatima Goss Graves, NWLC vice president for education and employment, in a statement Thursday. “This lack of accountability sends a troubling message to would-be perpetrators: As long as you’re not caught, you’ll escape all consequences.”
A spokeswoman for Madison County Schools e-mailed the Monitor a statement Thursday: “The attorneys for the Board of Education and school officials are confident that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals will rule in favor of the Board and the administrators. Our attorneys recommend that we not discuss ongoing litigation.”
While the allegations in this case are more severe than most other suits stemming from sexual harassment in K-12 schools, many schools fail to have adequate policies around training staff, setting up reporting procedures, notifying students of their rights under Title IX to report sexual harassment and violence, and responding in a timely way, says Neena Chaudhry, NWLC senior counsel.
Despite efforts by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to clarify schools’ responsibilities multiple times over the past decade, “you’d be surprised how many schools have Title IX coordinators who don’t even know they’ve been named as such,” Ms. Maatz says.
The 11th Circuit is the circuit from which emerged a landmark 1999 Supreme Court case, Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, which established the right of students to sue schools for damages under Title IX for student-to-student sexual harassment. In that case, a fifth-grader became suicidal after a boy repeatedly groped her and her teacher did nothing to stop the harassment, even denying the girl’s request to move to a different seat in the classroom.