The young woman raped by a male classmate in an Alabama middle school—after her school arranged for her to meet him in the bathroom to catch him in the act of harassment instead of investigating her report that he had repeatedly propositioned her for sex—has favorably settled her case. Nothing can take away the pain and suffering she needlessly endured, but at least some justice was done.
This was one of the most heartbreaking cases I’ve worked on. In addition to exposing the school’s utter disregard for our client’s health and safety, it shows just how much work remains to ensure that schools comply with Title IX, which, among other things, requires prompt and thorough investigations of allegations of sexual harassment. Guidance to schools about what procedures and policies they must have in place and how they have to respond to sexual harassment of their students has been around for decades, but schools across the country are still failing to do right by their students. The Department of Education has stepped up its enforcement, and we and other groups have asked them for more technical assistance and resources targeted at K-12 schools in particular.
But to receive any relief in court, a student plaintiff has to show that a school’s response to his or her harassment was “clearly unreasonable under the circumstances.” This is a much higher standard than employees have to meet when they are sexually harassed in the workplace, so unfortunately kids have a higher burden to bear in court cases than do adults. Yet as we argued in our appellate brief, that higher standard was clearly met here. And the Eleventh Circuit agreed that there was enough evidence showing the school’s actions were clearly unreasonable to allow the plaintiff to proceed to trial. Thankfully, she was spared having to go through that traumatic process. Now I can only hope the school district has learned its lesson and will train all of its staff about the proper way to respond to sexual harassment and protect its students.