ATLANTA, Ga. (WHNT) – The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the victim at the center of the Sparkman Middle School rape civil lawsuit on Wednesday. The ruling overturned the district court’s dismissal of the suit, meaning the victim, known as “Jane Doe,” can now sue school officials.
The 2010 filing became known as the Sparkman rape “bait” case. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the victim by her guardian against members of the Madison County School System. It states that a then-14-year-old special needs girl was raped by a fellow student, known as “CJC,” in a school bathroom after a failed attempt by teacher’s aide June Simpson to catch another student accused of sexual misconduct in the act.
The suit also alleges that Sparkman Middle School principal Ronnie Blair and former assistant principal Jeanne Dunaway were “deliberately indifferent to the sexual harassment.”
The ruling stated “we reverse the grant of summary judgment to the Board on Doe’s Title IX claim and to Blair, Dunaway, and Simpson on Doe’s 1983 equal protection claims.”
The plaintiff already could sue for wantonness and neglect, but now her attorneys can sue for Title IX and civil rights violations, as well, and present those claims to a jury to potentially collect damages.
Title IX is a federal law aimed at ending sexual discrimination in education. In part, it dictates how schools that receive federal funds must respond to claims of sexual harassment.
Student-on-student sexual harassment rises to the level of actionable Title IX discrimination only if the harassment is “sufficiently severe.” The plaintiff must establish not only that the school district was deliberately indifferent to known acts of harassment, but also that the known harassment was “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it denied its victims the equal access to education that Title IX is designed to protect.”
Section 1983 allows persons to sue individuals or municipalities acting under the color of state law for violations of federal law. One such law is the Equal Protection Clause, which confers a federal constitutional right to be free from sex discrimination.
The court did clear assistant principal Teresa Terrell and the school board on the equal protection claims.
The complex 75-page ruling details the incident and testimony, as well as the school’s poor record keeping and questionable sexual harassment policy enforcement.
“A person in Doe’s position could have no confidence in a school system that orchestrates a rape-bait scheme and whose disciplinary file describes CJC’s rape of her as ‘inappropriate touching a female in a boys’ bathroom,'” the ruling stated.
“In light of the incomprehensible rape-bait scheme and the resulting severe suffering Doe endured on January 22, combined with the refusal of school personnel to acknowledge the rape or begin implementing new sexual harassment prevention or record-keeping policies, her withdrawal was reasonable and expected,” wrote a federal judge.
Doe transferred out of Sparkman Middle School shortly after the incident and moved out of state.
According to court documents, Blair testified saying he would not change any policies because, “we did as good a job as you could do under the circumstances.”
The defendants can appeal Wednesday’s ruling, which would summon all of the judges of the 11th Circuit Court to hear the case. If not, the case returns to the U.S. District Court.
Gaining national attention and outrage
In 2013, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Putnam ruled that appropriate action was taken by the school and he threw out the federal claims that the incident was a Title IX violation. The judge did not dismiss the state claims of negligence and wantonness against Dunaway and Simpson. Court records show Dunaway appealed the state claims in November 2013.
The lawsuit gained more notoriety in September of 2014, when the U.S. Department of Justice argued that the victim should be able to sue the Madison County School System. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division submitted a 126-page strident amicus brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, disagreeing with the district judge’s order.
Less than a week later, the school district responded.
“Judge Putnam found no evidence of any violation [by school administrators],” said attorney Mark Boardman in a September press conference. “The judge found they took proper action to protect not only this student, but also all students.”
“They took steps to protect the 14-year-old girl when she returned to school. She experienced no further harassment,” he added.
Boardman’s firm represents Madison County Schools and the administrators named in the 2010 lawsuit.
The story was then shared with a national audience when victim did an interview with CNN.
Background of the case
According to court records, a 16-year-old student approached 14-year-old Jane Doe in the hallway of Sparkman Middle School on January 22, 2010, and asked her to meet him in a bathroom for sex. It was not the first time the boy had propositioned the girl, who was enrolled in the school’s special education program.
Usually, she just ignored him. But, on that day, she told a friend, who suggested she tell a teacher’s aide about what was happening. That aide, June Ann Simpson, knew of other girls who the boy had tried to lure into a bathroom for sex, according to a 2010 federal lawsuit filed by the victim’s father against Madison County Schools and officials.
Simpson, in turn, told the school’s principal, Ronnie Blair, about the allegations.
According to a 2012 deposition, Blair told Simpson the boy would have to be proven guilty to be punished. In response, Simpson crafted a plan to prove the allegations, using Jane Doe as bait.
The idea was to have the girl agree to meet the boy in a bathroom. Simpson would watch surveillance video, and teachers would intervene before anything happened.
Both Doe and Simpson claim they then went to the office of vice-principal Jeanne Dunaway.
However, Simpson says when she told Dunaway about the plan, Dunaway did not respond. During a deposition, Dunaway denied the conversation happened.
Doe said she then left Dunaway’s office and found the boy in the hallway to tell him they could “do it.” Simpson stayed behind to watch surveillance monitors, hoping to catch the two walk into the bathroom. She never did.
According to Doe’s written statement after the incident, the boy made a last-minute change. Instead of meeting in the boys’ bathroom on the special needs students’ corridor, the boy allegedly told the girl to meet him in the sixth grade boys’ bathroom, in another part of the school.
Once there, Doe said she tried to stall the boy, hoping a teacher would rush in. She told him she didn’t want to have sex, and she tried blocking him, according to her 2012 deposition. Nothing worked. She says the boy sodomized her.
According to court documents, “after speaking to the police, Doe was transported to a child advocacy center where nurses performed tests and provided medical treatment. The medical records from the examination were consistent with anal rape.”
The alleged attacker was never charged and the case was never presented to a grand jury, according to Madison County District Attorney Robert Broussard.
The incident was characterized as “inappropriate (sic) touching a girl in boys bathroom” according to school disciplinary records. The boy was suspended from school for five days and sent to an alternative school for a short time.
The alleged attack was at least the 13th incident of sexual or violent misconduct in the boy’s file, all within two academic years. While at the alternative school, the boy was suspended for sharing pornographic images on a cell phone.
He was eventually allowed to return to Sparkman Middle School while Doe was still enrolled as a student.
“A reasonable jury could find the Board’s overall conduct and its clearly unreasonable response to the rape prevented Doe from continuing her education at Sparkman,” wrote the judge.
“After the rape on January 22, Doe continued attending Sparkman until she withdrew on March 26. She returned to North Carolina to finish eighth grade. Doe never received any assistance from the Board, in the form of counseling or otherwise, to deal with her trauma. Upon her return to North Carolina, Doe attended mental health counseling sessions and was prescribed medication for depression.
Lawyers filed a civil suit in March against the male accused of raping Doe.