Last week the National Women’s Law Center, along with a local law firm in Michigan filed a complaint in federal district court on behalf a high school student who was sexually assaulted at school by a fellow student and star basketball player. In many ways the story echoes the tragic high school rape story from Steubenville, Ohio,which should lead all of us to ask just what kind of culture are we raising our children in, and what kind of culture is being cultivated at our high schools?
According to the complaint, in 2010 the victim was sexually assaulted by a star player on the school’s basketball team. The assault took place on campus in a sound proof band room at Forest Hills Central High School. The victim notified a teacher who in turn reported the assault to the principal. But rather than open an investigation into the allegations, the principal discouraged the student and her parents from filing charges, telling them that doing so could ruin the assailant’s prospects at being recruited to play basketball for a Division 1 school.
The victim and her parents ignored the principal’s request not to file charges because they were concerned that this student might attack other girls. Instead, the student and her parents filed a police report, and the Kent County Sheriff’s Department began a criminal investigation. Meanwhile, the school did nothing.
As alleged in the complaint, two weeks later another female student was sexually assaulted by the same attacker. Despite a legal obligation under Title IX to investigate the assault and protect the student, the high school officials never interviewed the girl or her parents again, failed to conduct an investigation, and for two and a half weeks left the attacker in one of her classes.
It gets worse. As word of the sexual assault spread among the student body, the female victim became the target of an intensive cyber-bullying and harassment campaign—both at school and online—that depicted her as a liar and a “whore” who was trying to bring down an innocent athlete. These cyber-attacks were only reinforced by the fact that the school continued to take no action to reprimand the male student. Not only did fellow students harass the victim, the attacker and his friends verbally and physically harassed the girl as well. They followed her around as she moved in and out of classrooms, through hallways, and around the school campus. The attacker sometimes pushed her into other students as she walked down the hallway, causing her to slam into lockers. Despite repeated efforts by the victim’s parents and other students to alert the principal and the school’s Title IX Coordinator about the viciousness of the harassment by the attacker and other students, school administrators took no action.
Thankfully law enforcement did. Five weeks after the sexual assault, the Kent County Prosecutor’s office authorized two felony counts of criminal sexual conduct against the attacker for his assaults on NWLC’s client and the second female victim at the school. The attacker later pled guilty to a single count of misdemeanor assault and battery. He was sentenced to attend Kent County’s Adolescent Sexual Offender Treatment Program for a second time. The only sanction the school imposed upon the student assailant was to temporarily bench him on the basketball court.
“Title IX requires schools to ensure that the educational environment is free from sex-based discrimination,” said NWLC Vice-President of Education and Employment Fatima Goss Graves said in a statement.
“This school completely ignored its legal responsibility to address student-on-student sexual harassment and failed to take reasonable steps to protect the victim. The school’s failure to address the harassment sends a chilling message to students that they should remain silent in the face of sexual assault and cannot count on their school to provide a safe learning environment.”
Because of the school district’s inaction, the victim’s grades suffered, she quit the soccer team and cheerleading squad, became isolated from her classmates, and ended up transferring to a new school. And while the lawsuit may vindicate her rights, it does little to undo the message the school district sent to other students, which is that if a student dares to speak out against sexual violence they will be ridiculed and left unprotected. Students not only deserve to feel safe in their school environments, according to Title IX they have a right to be safe in them as well. Unfortunately for students at Forest Hills Central High School, their administration doesn’t seem to understand that duty trumps potential college athletic recruitment.