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Failure to Train Staff Properly and to Take Prompt and Effective Action Costs Michigan School District Dearly in Federal Title IX Peer-on –Peer Sexual Assault Case

Michigan Forest Hills School District reached a $600,000 settlement with a female student who sued the district in federal court alleging that she was sexually assaulted in her school’s band room by a male classmate, MM.  The female identified as Jane Doe was a 15 year old sophomore at the time of the assault and MM was a sixteen year old junior. Jane Doe claims that the school failed to protect her from sexual harassment after she filed her complaint against MM who was a prominent athlete in the school under recruitment from Division 1 colleges with a promise of athletic scholarships.

The school’s investigation of Jane Doe’s complaint was quickly suspended when the police got involved.  The district’s Title IX coordinator, who was aware of the complaint, took no action to investigate.  As justification for its alleged inaction, the school claimed that it had insufficient evidence to act, and that it needed to wait for the completion of a police investigation which might bring forth more evidence. The school maintained that its initial inquiries were inconclusive regarding the assault. The school district maintained that they acted timely and appropriately after learning of the allegations, but also maintained that a local detective assigned to the case told them not to conduct a parallel investigation of their own. The detective denied making the statement.

Many months passed before the completion of the police investigation with no further school investigation, meanwhile Jane Doe and MM remained in school together and in the same lunch, even initially remaining in the same classroom for some two weeks before a change was made to MM’s class schedule after a second female came forward alleging MM assaulted her at school as well. While the police investigation lagged on, Jane Doe alleged that she was subject to a hostile school environment. She alleged that during the school year she was bullied on line by peers, pushed in the hallways at school into lockers, had her books thrown across the hallway at her, was continually taunted and harassed by the perpetrator and by the perpetrators’ friends as well as fellow classmates while in school, after school, and at afterschool activities including being forced to leave a school basketball game when students chanted until she left. As a result of the sexual harassment, Jane Doe alleged that her education was impacted negatively as she lost classroom time, avoided class time by staying in the school guidance counselor’s office, lost interest in afterschool activities, and required mental health counseling and medication for depression and anxiety related to the stress of attending school. Jane Doe alleges that even after reporting the many incidents of harassment, the only intermediary action taken by the school was to tell MM to leave her alone and to tell her to report any future issues with MM. Jane Doe and her parents were never questioned after their initial school meetings, not even after a second female student was allegedly assaulted two weeks after Jane Doe’s alleged assault. At various points, Jane Doe’s parents expressed concerns about the continued harassment of their daughter and shared copies of harassing messages received by her online, but their expressed concerns went largely unresponded to by the school.  No disciplinary action was taken against the male until the police investigation closed and a plea was negotiated at the end of the school year some eleven months after the alleged assault occurred.

A federal  district court judge granted summary judgment, in part, in favor of the female student on her §1983 equal protection claim. The female had alleged that the district failed to train its employees on how to handle sexual complaints notwithstanding the obvious risk that an untrained response would be deficient.  The district admitted that school district did not provide any training on responding to sexual assault claims.  When asked, the Title IX coordinator, the school district principal, nor the Superintendent was certain if Title IX applied to sexual assault situations. The judge ruled that the school failed to train staff on how to properly handle Title IX complaints of sexual assault and harassment and that training would have prevented Jane Doe’s injuries, at least to some extent. The district court judge reasoned that had the school immediately removed contact between the female and the male, it was very likely that the female would not have experienced ongoing harassment for the remainder of the school year. Under the parties’ settlement agreement, Forest Hills Public Schools will sponsor Title IX training as part of an existing Global Learning Initiative program.

This case highlights the need for schools to conduct their own Title IX investigations even when a police investigation is under way.  It will not suffice under the law for a school to report an incident to the police and to take no further investigatory or responsive action to protect complainants. Further, the ruling emphasizes how important it is that key school personnel receive appropriate and ongoing training regarding Title IX and its requirements under federal law. School employees should also be familiar with district board polices setting forth procedures for Title IX complaints, investigation, and recommended remedies including intermediary measures to be taken.