DOJ Supports Appeal of Special Needs Girl Raped in Middle School Bathroom
The Department of Justice provided legal support to a federal appeal by a young special needs girl who was raped at her junior high school when a plan to catch her attacker by using her as bait failed. The case, which will be heard by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, was dismissed last year by a lower federal court because the judge did not believe he could second guess school officials for their strategy, even though it went tragically awry.
14-Year-Old Used as Bait is Raped in Junior High Bathroom
In January 2010, a 14-year-old student at Sparkman Middle School in Toney, Alabama informed school officials that she had been approached by a 16-year-old classmate who had urged her to have sex with him in a school bathroom. Given the boy’s history, which included violence and several incidents of sexual misconduct and inappropriate touching, the girl’s fear seemed justified at the time she reported the sexual advances. A teacher’s aide, operating under the assumption that Principal Ronnie Blair required the boy to be caught in the act in order for the school to effectively punish him, developed a plan that required the young girl agree to meet her aggressor in one of the school’s bathroom, baiting him to sexually assault her. Under the aide’s plan, teachers would burst into the restroom and catch the perpetrator before he could cause any actual harm to the victim.
In a miscommunication between the aide and the school’s vice principal, the plan was not discussed in time for it to be executed properly, an as a result, the girl, operating under the assurances that the plan to use her as bait would work, entered the bathroom with the boy without the protection she expected. Once she was alone with him in the bathroom, she was raped before the teachers could uphold their end of the poorly-conceived bargain. Later in 2010, the girl, who was so traumatized that she spent years in therapy and never returned to the school, filed a lawsuit against the school board for violations of federal Title IX for allowing sexual harassment offensive enough to deny the victim the benefits of education.
Federal Trial Judge Dismisses Title IX Lawsuit
Last July, U.S. Magistrate Judge T. Michael Putnam dismissed the case because the school officials were trying to institute effective discipline of the perpetrator, and did not intend that the victim be sexually harassed. Writing, “The court does not downplay the tragic and horrific harm (the girl) suffered. The plaintiff simply is not able to show that the Board, through 'appropriate' personnel, had actual knowledge that (the boy's) harassment of plaintiff was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive as to systemically deprive her of educational opportunities and benefits,” Justice Putnam felt that the lawsuit failed to show the board, by way of the school officials, was legally responsible for her rape because it could not have anticipated the plan would end so disastrously.
Judge Putnam went on, "While plaintiff may now second-guess the adequacy of these disciplinary steps, the court is not allowed that luxury. School administrators are given deference with respect to disciplinary decisions unless those decisions are 'clearly unreasonable.' The court cannot say that the decisions made with respect to controlling and correcting (the boy's) misconduct were 'clearly unreasonable.'" Applying this standard, Judge Putnam dismissed all federal Title IX charges as a matter of law, preventing the case from going to a jury trial. Attorneys representing the assaulted girl appealed, and the matter awaits hearing in front of the 11th Circuit.
Department of Justice Lends its Support to Title IX Appeal
With the case pending before the 11th Circuit, the young victim found a powerful ally in the Department of Justice, which submitted a third-party brief arguing that the case should not have been dismissed. The DOJ disagreed with the lower court’s ruling, arguing, "A school board cannot avoid summary judgment as a matter of law when a school administrator willfully ignores a plan to use a 14-year-old special needs student as bait to catch a student with a known history of sexual and violent misconduct, and as a result, the student is sodomized.”
Given the perpetrator’s history of sexual misconduct and the victim’s vulnerability, the DOJ felt that school administrators were clearly unreasonable in allowing her to be used as bait for sexual assault, and argued that the case should not have been dismissed because "...a jury could easily conclude that the school acted with deliberate indifference when, despite two sexual misconduct complaints against (the boy) days before he sodomized (the girl), it provided him unsupervised access to students and failed to protect (the girl)."
The DOJ brings considerable credibility, and national attention, to the case, but it remains to be seen how the 11th Circuit responds. A rational interpretation of the legal remedies available under Title IX suggests that the lower federal court’s ruling will be overturned, giving the young victim the opportunity to pursue compensation from the school board and administrators whose failure exposed her to sexual assault.