Law & Courts

Alabama District Protests ‘Misinformation’ in Rape-Bait Case

By Christina A. Samuels — September 24, 2014 3 min read
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Representatives from an Alabama school district defended themselves Tuesday against what they said is misinformation being reported about the case of a student who accused a classmate of rape in a botched sting attempt.

The attack, which occured in 2010, is back in the news because the girl’s father has filed an appeal of the case’s dismissal. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Sept. 17 supporting the family’s case. (The link to the Justice Department’s brief is courtesy of WHNT, the CBS affiliate in Huntsville, Ala.)

The judge who dismissed the case is “the only independent person to have looked at everything in this matter. And in looking at everything, he found no evidence of any violation of federal law by any Board of Education administrator, or by the Board of Education,” said Mark Boardman, the attorney for the 20,000-student Madison County district, during the Tuesday press conference.

The Justice Department brief contends, however, that the judge’s ruling was incorrect and that case could represent a violation of Title IX, which prohibits sexual discrimination in schools.

“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,” says the Justice Department brief.

The case involves a 14-year-old middle school student who said she was propositioned several times by a 16-year-old classmate at Sparkman Middle School. The classmate, also described as “special needs,” had a history of sexual harassment and had been disciplined several times.

The victim reported the harassment to a teacher’s aide, who went with the girl to an assistant principal and said they were going to try to catch the classmate “in the act.” The administrator appeared “disinterested,” according to testimony from the teacher’s aide; the administrator says that the two never spoke to her.

The girl went ahead with the plan and met the boy in a school bathroom. Teachers didn’t arrive in time to stop the attack, the girl said. Local prosecutors investigated but did not file charges against the 16-year-old.

(Earlier this year, I wrote an article noting that students with disabilities are more often the victims of sexual harassment and assault than their typically-developing peers. It includes some tips for parents and school administrators in dealing with sexual development and potential dangers for this vulnerable population.)

The father of the student who was attacked filed a lawsuit against the district and school administrators, saying that they knowingly put the girl in harm’s way. In 2013, U.S. Magistrate Judge T. Michael Putnam in the Northern District of Alabama dismissed most of the lawsuit’s allegations. (The case against one school administrator is still pending.) From Putnam’s ruling:

Regardless of how foolish and perhaps even negligent this plan may have been, there never was an intent to subject [the female student] to sexual harassment or assault, or even deliberate indifference to her plight. ... The court does not downplay the tragic and horrific harm [the student] suffered. But in order for the Board, as a recipient to Federal funds, to be liable under Title IX, plaintiff must meet the "rigorous" standard laid out by the Supreme Court in [Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education].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.

Putnam’s mention of the Davis case refers to the 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found that harassment must be “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” for victims to be able to recover damages.

Boardman, the attorney for the district, said that the entire plan was cooked up by the teacher’s aide, who is no longer employed by the school system. “No administrator played any role in this at all,” he said.

The latest actions in the case have prompted a flurry of critical national stories; one commentator for CNN said that the district would “pay dearly” for what it did.

At the Tuesday press conference, school board chairman Jeff Anderson said that the commentary has been “hurtful to the people involved.”

“I wanted to take this time to assure the parents and citizens that our number one priority is the safety of our students,” he said. “School officials took this matter very seriously, immediately notified law enforcement, and cooperated fully with the authorities at the time of the incident.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.