An Alabama teen will be allowed to sue a school district that used her as “bait” in a botched sting operation designed to catch another student committing a sexual assault — an incident that resulted in the girl’s rape, according to a federal appeals court ruling.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta said in a decision handed down Wednesday that administrators from the Madison County School District in Alabama behaved with “deliberate indifference” when they instructed a 14-year-old girl to go to the bathroom with a fellow student who had repeatedly been accused of sexual misconduct, in order to “catch him in the act.” When the teachers failed to go to the bathroom in time to intervene, the alleged assailant forcibly sodomized the girl, according to court documents.
The appeals court decision reversed the ruling of a lower court, which had found that the school district had not violated Title IX, a federal education law that bans sex discrimination at all public schools and is increasingly being invoked in sexual harassment and assault cases at the college level. The law guarantees an education free of all forms of sex discrimination, including sexual violence, as outlined in a 2011 letter from the U.S. Department of Education.
"These are highly unique and extreme facts that will hopefully never again be repeated," wrote the appeals court judges in a 75-page ruling.
“A person in [the victim’s] position could have no confidence in a school system that orchestrates a rape-bait scheme and whose disciplinary file describes [the assailant’s] rape of her as ‘[i]nappropriate touching a female in a boys’ bathroom.”
The student was 14 years old at the time of the incident at Sparkman Middle School, near Huntsville, Alabama. Named as Jane Doe in court documents to protect her identity, the student had complained to her teacher in January 2010 that a male student had asked her to go to the boys’ bathroom and have sex with him. “Teachers and administrators knew” that the boy, who is referred to in court documents as “CJC,” “had been propositioning girls to have sex with him at school,” and that the school principal ordered that he be “closely monitored at all times,” according to court documents.
The boy had been propositioning Doe for weeks before the incident, and she had always ignored him. But when the girl eventually approached teacher June Simpson about it, Simpson told her that she should go to the bathroom with him. “Don’t do anything,” Simpson said, according to court records. “Just get him to meet you and we’ll catch him.”
Simpson suggested this, she testified, because the school principal, Ronnie Blair, had created a “catch in the act” sexual harassment policy in order to impose discipline on any student. “Students in middle school, especially with the use of social media, tend to make up a lot of stories about people,” the principal had said.
In addition, Sparkman Middle School did not review the school’s sexual harassment policy with staff each school year, and Blair testified that he couldn’t remember who the school’s Title IX coordinator was at the time of the assault. Teachers were never given a copy of the sexual harassment policy, though some of them recalled going to an after-school workshop about it.
According to court records, the school’s policy was that if a student came forward to complain about sexual harassment but the allegation wasn’t proven, the school would “quickly destroy” the witness statements. If the allegations did get proven, paper files would be kept in the principal’s office, but they were shredded at the end of each school year, and limited logs would be made in a student discipline computer database.
CJC had already logged five sexual misconduct infractions and four incidents of violence in the database during the 18 months before the alleged rape. But when a student came forward in January 2010 to complain that CJC had “inappropriately touched” her, just weeks before he would go on to assault Doe on Jan. 22, an assistant principal dismissed it as “middle school drama.” The staff also failed to review CJC’s disciplinary record when investigating the complaint, court records said.
When the boy propositioned Doe on Jan. 22 and Simpson suggested the sting operation, Doe initially said she didn’t want to go, but ultimately agreed. Simpson would watch them in a security camera and catch them in the act, assuring her that “nothing would happen,” but she testified that CJC and Doe went to a different bathroom than originally planned, so no one rescued the girl before he anally raped her, court records showed.
A rape kit test performed on the girl at a child advocacy center showed results consistent with rape, although the Madison County District Attorney’s office never filed charges against the alleged assailant, court records said.
The Madison County school board had an expulsion hearing about CJC, but instead sentenced him to “alternative school placement.” In April of 2010, he was sent back to Sparkman after a teacher at the alternative school caught him looking at porn on a school computer. But at that point, Doe had already transferred to another school.
“She now attends counseling sessions, takes medication for depression, no longer participates in extracurricular activities like basketball, and her grades have suffered,” the court documents said.
Simpson resigned from the school after the incident, but Blair, the principal, kept his job at the school. Two other vice principals who were defendants in the suit also still work for the school district, according to CNN.
But according to Doe’s attorney, Eric Artrip, unless either party appeals the case to the Supreme Court, his client’s suit against the school district will be handed back to the lower court in Alabama to be tried before a jury.
"We are very pleased with the 11th Circuit's decision that Title IX reaches the kind of behavior we saw on display in this case," Artrip told CNN. "We hope that this decision will serve to make women and girls safer in the educational setting."