(Washington, D.C.) The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) said today that it has filed a brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit with co-counsel Mastando & Artrip, LLC against Madison County School Board and school officials in Alabama for their outrageous response to student-on-student sexual harassment that resulted in the rape of a 14-year-old girl. The case stems from a policy at Sparkman Middle School of only punishing sexual harassment if a student was “caught in the act” through witnesses, an admission, or physical evidence. Based on this policy, school officials failed to effectively address repeated sexual harassment of multiple female students by a male student. When the 14-year-old girl complained about this older male student asking her to meet him in the bathroom for sex, school officials sent her to meet him in the bathroom as bait in a sting operation to “catch him in the act.” Before any staff arrived, the girl was raped by the male student.
The district court found for the school district, even though the school’s actions were highly unreasonable and therefore violated Title IX, which requires schools to investigate charges of sexual harassment promptly and thoroughly, take corrective action as needed, and protect the victim.
“This tragic situation should never have happened,” said Fatima Goss Graves, NWLC Vice President for Education and Employment. “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. This lack of accountability sends a troubling message to would-be perpetrators: as long as you’re not caught, you’ll escape all consequences.”
Before the rape, the girl played basketball and her grades were As, Bs, and Cs. After the rape, she said that she preferred to be alone, no longer trusted anyone, and no longer felt safe. She transferred to another school, stopped playing basketball, and has had trouble with grades, sometimes getting all Fs, because she feels depressed due to the rape. The male student was suspended for five days and eventually placed in an alternative school.
The suit contends that the School Board is liable for damages under Title IX because school officials with authority to take corrective action had clear notice of the risk of abuse by the male student and acted unreasonably under the circumstances. The suit also includes claims against the School Board and officials under the United States Constitution and Alabama state law. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the 14-year-old girl.