So began Jane Doe’s ordeal that continues to this day as she fights for justice in a civil action whereby she claims that her statutory, constitutional and common law rights were violated by the school administrators’ “deliberate indifference” in response to a “student-on-student sexual assault on school premises and subsequent sex-based harassment.”
Schools and universities should be safe environments and there are laws and regulations in place to ensure students are protected. If authorities fail in their duties and obligations, the court system provides remedies for those who have suffered egregious events.
The story of Jane Doe and the court case now playing out in Michigan is sadly not unique.
Neena Chaudhry, an attorney from the National Women’s Law Center in Washington D.C., and one of the lawyers representing Jane Doe, says, “Unfortunately this is a problem we are seeing across the country. We are a national advocacy group and we have worked on these kinds of cases throughout our history. We are seeing it at the K through 12 level, at the college level and in graduate schools.”
In legal terms, Jane Doe was effectively denied access to educational opportunities - a violation of the federal government law known as Title IX, as well as denied access to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.
“The report triggered the school’s obligations under Title IX,” says attorney Anne Buckleitner, who, along with the National Women’s Law Center, represents Jane Doe in the suit. “In addition to the law, there are guidelines from the Department of Education that have been published and are sent to school supervisors nationwide. It means they have a responsibility to begin an internal investigation as well as reporting the sexual assault to police.
“What happened was the principal met with the parents and said if you go forward with a criminal complaint this is going to be difficult. There are racial issues (Jane Doe is Caucasian, the attacker is African American). This young man is a great athlete and probably going to be a Division I recruit so let’s take that into consideration,” says Buckleitner from the firm of Smietanka, Buckleitner, Steffes & Gezon.
The parents insisted the matter be referred to the police.
The police and prosecutor found enough evidence to proceed with a charge of sexual assault. However, it took almost a year for the case to proceed through the justice system. Meanwhile, the school’s own internal investigation yielded an “inconclusive” result and Jane Doe’s assailant was not disciplined by the school.
“The school dragged their feet waiting on the results of the criminal investigation. That is something the guidance and the law says you are not supposed to,” says Chaudhry.
“As a result, Jane Doe was continually subjected to harassment by her peers and by the person she accused of assaulting her.”
The alleged harassment was a devastating campaign of hallway insults and threats by the attacker’s friends and supporters. According to the complaint, supporters pushed other students into Jane Doe and knocked her up against lockers. They called her “a liar, a whore.” They stood in the doorway of her classroom forcing teachers to clear the way. And, there was online harassment.
The attacker’s case took a year to proceed through the justice system. He ultimately pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of assault. In the meantime, Jane Doe’s school environment was so hostile that she found it necessary to leave.
“She decided she could not stay at the school and transferred,” says Buckleitner.
Although the federal and state laws do not directly say Jane Doe has a right to sue, the legislation, as well as case law, certainly indicates that the school board can be found liable and forced to pay damages when harm is done.
Damage to Jane Doe cannot be overestimated in the opinion of her lawyers. “There is pain and suffering, there is loss of reputation, loss of credibility. Although she is proceeding with the lawsuit as Jane Doe, everyone in her social circle and the school knows who she is,” notes Buckleitner.
The National Women’s Law Center is currently involved in another peer-on-peer sexual assault at an Alabama middle school. The school ignored sexual harassment complaints about a particular male student because administrators believed he needed to be “caught in the act.” Rather than follow the Department of Education guidelines and Title IX law, the school used the girl “as bait” to determine whether the allegations were true.
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Attorney Chaudhry believes school administrators have plenty of information about their responsibilities and a “no-excuses” obligation. “I don’t think there is any excuse. They have a responsibility to train their teachers, their staff and their students. Every school district has a lawyer. I am not sure what they are doing. It is the school’s job to make sure their institution is free from sex discrimination, discrimination on the basis of race, disability, and so on. I get that they are busy, but this is critically important.”
The Alabama case is ongoing. Jane Doe’s lawyers have asked for summary judgment in her case but are prepared for trial in June.