Can Students Get Punished for Reporting Sexual Assault?

woman sit in the corner and take metoo billboard with against sexual harassment
By Christopher Coble, Esq. on August 30, 2019 6:00 AM

"Nobody likes a tattletale." While that might've been appropriate advice for kindergarteners decades ago, it's not what you say to victims of sexual assault here and now.

But according to a lawsuit filed in Georgia, that's what high school administrators essentially said to one 16-year-old female student who was expelled for the remainder of the school year after reporting that she was coerced into performing oral sex on a male classmate. The principal cited the school's ban on "sexual impropriety," but similar cases have become all too common in schools nationwide.

An Egregious Case

"What we're alleging is that the school violated Title IX which is a federal law that says that you have to prevent and address sex discrimination which includes sexual harassment and assault in school," Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, director of Educational Equity & Senior Counsel for National Women's Law Center, told Atlanta's WSB-TV. "We thought this case was just so egregious, so many things done wrong that we felt like we had to represent this student to get her justice and to get her education back on track."

The NWLC filed the lawsuit on behalf of the victim, referred to as A.P. in legal documents:

While doing an extra credit assignment after school in August 2017, a male student asked A.P. to meet him in the hallway. The two met and he demanded that she perform oral sex and physically prevented her from leaving until she did.
The next day, A.P. reported the assault to two guidance counselors, who elevated the matter to an assistant principal. Rather than connect A.P. with the Title IX coordinator or other educational supports, senior administrators immediately took disciplinary action against A.P. by confiscating her cell phone, placing her in in-school suspension, and then giving her a ten-day out-of-school suspension pending a disciplinary hearing. The school ultimately expelled her for "sexual impropriety," and referred her to an alternative school for the entire 2017-18 school year.

"No one ever investigated this as if it was a sexual assault, even though [the victim] was consistent throughout, saying this happened against her will," Onyeka-Crawford said.

The Wild West

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 states: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." While the federal law has been at the center of college rape scandals in recent years, many don't realize it applies to K-12 schools as well. According to the New York Times in May, the Education Department is investigating 652 total complaints of Title IX violations related to sexual harassment and violence; 279 of them are against K-12 schools.

And schools are not handling these claims well. "It’s like the Wild West," Adele P. Kimmel, a senior lawyer at Public Justice, told the Times. "K-12 schools are light years behind colleges."

"There is a lot of shaming and blaming that is going on," according to the NWLC's Neena Chaudhry. The Georgia student's lawsuit claims school administrators knew of the alleged perpetrator's sexually aggressive behavior before the incident, failed to properly investigate the victim's claims of assault, and failed to give the victim any assurances that she would be safe from retaliation if and when she returned to school. It was also unclear whether the aggressor was punished at all. The suit alleges multiple Title IX violations by the school and its staff, as well as negligence and recklessness, and is seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

School administrators should take accusations of sexual assault against students seriously, and investigate accordingly. Talk to an experienced education attorney if you have questions about how sexual harassment or assault claims are handled at your child's school.

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