(Washington, D.C.) Today the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), together with the Michigan law firm Smietanka, Buckleitner, Steffes and Gezon, filed a Title IX lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan against the Forest Hills School District outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan for failing to respond to the sexual assault of a high school student on school premises and the subsequent cyber-bullying and on-campus harassment suffered by the teenage girl. As a result, the young woman lost academic class time and grew increasingly fearful as the bullying and harassment escalated. Her grades plummeted, she dropped off the soccer team and cheerleading squad, became isolated–even from her friends–and was forced to transfer to a new school the following year to avoid her attacker.
“Title IX requires schools to ensure that the educational environment is free from sex-based discrimination,” said NWLC Vice-President of Education and Employment Fatima Goss Graves. “This school completely ignored its legal responsibility to address student-on-student sexual harassment and failed to take reasonable steps to protect the victim. The school’s failure to address the harassment sends a chilling message to students that they should remain silent in the face of sexual assault and cannot count on their school to provide a safe learning environment.”
The complaint asserts that in 2010, a high school girl was sexually assaulted in a soundproof band room at Forest Hills Central High School by a star player on the school’s basketball team. After one of her teachers notified the principal about the assault, he discouraged the student and her parents from filing charges. But because they were concerned that this student might attack other girls, the student and her parents filed a police report, and the Kent County Sheriff’s Department began a criminal investigation. In fact, two weeks later, another female student was sexually assaulted by the same attacker. Still, despite an obligation under Title IX to investigate the assault and protect the student, the high school officials never interviewed the girl or her parents again, failed to conduct an investigation, and for two and a half weeks left the attacker in one of her classes. During this time, the girl sat in the guidance counselor’s office rather than be in class with the student who assaulted her and missed the benefit of instruction.
As word of the sexual assault spread among the student body, and students saw that the school took no action to reprimand the male student, the female victim became the target of an intensive cyber-bullying and harassment campaign—both at school and online—that depicted her as a liar and a “whore” who was trying to bring down an innocent athlete. The attacker and his friends verbally and physically harassed the girl as she moved in and out of classrooms, through hallways, and around the school campus. The attacker sometimes pushed her into other students as she walked down the hallway, causing her to slam into lockers. Despite repeated efforts by the victim’s parents and other students to alert the principal and the school’s Title IX Coordinator about the viciousness of the harassment by the attacker and other students, school administrators took no action.
Five weeks after the sexual assault, the Kent County Prosecutor’s office authorized two felony counts of criminal sexual conduct against the attacker for his assaults on NWLC’s client and the second female victim at the school. The attacker later pled guilty to a single count of misdemeanor assault and battery. He was sentenced to attend Kent County’s Adolescent Sexual Offender Treatment Program for a second time. The only sanction the school imposed upon the student assailant was temporarily benching him on the basketball court.