Lawsuit over teen used as rape-bait can proceed

A federal appeals court allows a lawsuit against an Alabama school board to continue in regards to a 14-year-old female student who was used by a school employee in a plot to catch another student deemed to be an alleged sexual predator.

Photo by CNN.

The United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama ruled to dismiss the federal lawsuit filed alleging Title IX violations by the female student’s father against the Madison County School Board and several employees in July 2013. The U.S. Department of Justice and 33 groups that advocate against sexual violence filed a brief in the case asking the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the lower court’s decision.

The teacher’s aide states that based on her understanding that the student had to be ‘caught in the act’ in order for punishment to ensue, she developed a plan to catch him

A middle school teacher’s aide at Sparkman Middle School asked a 14-year-old female student to go into the bathroom as bait for a 16-year-old male student.1 The eighth grade male student had a history of sexual harassment and the ultimate goal of the plan was for the male student to be caught and disciplined.

The female student had informed school officials in January 2010 that the male student had urged her to have sex with him in the bathroom. The teacher’s aide states that based on her understanding that the student had to be ‘caught in the act’ in order for punishment to ensue, she developed a plan to catch him.

The plot completely backfired when the male student sexually assaulted the girl in the bathroom stall.

A federal lawsuit was filed by the girl’s father against the Madison County School Board in Alabama, four school workers, and the male student. The lawsuit alleges that the school board violated Title IX of federal law by allowing sexual harassment that was so offensive that it denied the female student benefits of an education.

At the center of the lawsuit the question is why the plan was carried out and who knew about the decision to send the female student into the bathroom. The Alabama school district contends that its school administrators are not to blame for the 2010 attack.   The Obama administration along with groups that advocate against sexual violence have continued to back the lawsuit filed by the father. 

The lower court held that the plot at hand was not unreasonable, but rather “a well-intended but foolish scheme”

U.S. Magistrate Judge T. Michael Putnam found that school officials had attempted to discipline the male student on previous occasions and further did not mean to subject the female student to sexual harassment.

“The court does not downplay the tragic and horrific harm [the girl] suffered,” the judge wrote. “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 systematically deprive her of educational opportunities and benefits.”

Judge Putnam also stated, “schools administrators are given deference with respect to disciplinary decisions unless those decisions are ‘clearly unreasonable.’”   Therefore the court held that the plot at hand was not unreasonable, but rather “a well-intended but foolish scheme.”

The judge further noted that there is no “process right to expect state officials to protect someone from the misconduct of a non-state actor.”   The court did acknowledge that there is an exception requiring the state to protect a person in a case where the state created or enhanced the danger to the person. Here, Judge Putnam concluded that there was only a passive failure by a state official to stop a plan formed by a teacher’s aide and this does not meet the standard of a failure to protect the female student.

The plaintiff in a student-on-student harassment suit must establish not only that the school district was deliberately indifferent to known acts of harassment, but also that the known harassment was sufficiently severe as required by Title IX

Title IX is a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. The main objective of Title IX, signed into law in 1972, is to avoid the use of federal money to support sex discrimination in education and provide individuals protection against such practices.

In the context of sexual harassment in the educational environment, the U.S. Supreme Court has addressed both teacher-on-student sexual harassment and student-on-student sexual harassment.

In Gerbser v. Lago Vista Independent School District the Supreme Court held that Title XI creates a private cause of action against funding recipients for teacher-on-student sexual harassment when a school official has official notice of the situation and is “deliberately indifferent” to the conduct. This indifference is defined by the Court as an official decision not to remedy the situation.

Similarly, in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, the Supreme Court held that Title IX creates a private cause of action for student-on-student sexual harassment. A Title IX funding recipient is liable for such harassment if it is “deliberately indifferent to sexual harassment, of which [it] has actual knowledge, that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” that it deprives the victim of access to the educational benefits provided by the school.

The standard for student-on-student harassment is more rigorous than a claim for teacher-on-teacher harassment. The plaintiff in a student-on-student harassment suit must establish not only that the school district was deliberately indifferent to known acts of harassment, but also that the known harassment was sufficiently severe as required by Title IX.

The Eleventh Circuit held that a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the plaintiff has satisfied all five elements that are necessary to succeed under Title IX

A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit found that the suit at hand did meet the necessary requirements to be considered under Title IX, thus overturning the lower court’s decision.

The Eleventh Circuit previously applied the Supreme Court’s decision of Davis in Williams v. Board of Regents of University System of Georgia, in which it held that a plaintiff must prove five elements for student-on-student sexual harassment violation.

First, the defendant must be a Title IX funding recipient. Second, an appropriate person must have actual knowledge of the harassment. Third, the harassment must be “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.” Fourth, the plaintiff must prove that the funding recipient was deliberately indifferent to the known acts of harassment. Fifth, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the victim’s access to an educational benefit was barred.

The district court found that no reasonable juror could find that the School Board had actual knowledge that the male student’s behavior constituted sexual harassment so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive as to deprive the female student of educational benefits. The Eleventh Circuit applies the elements developed in Williams and generates a different outcome from the lower court.

First, the Board is found to be a Title IX funding recipient. Second, the Court finds that the school principal was an appropriate person who made the Board aware, thus providing actual knowledge of the scheme to use the female student as bait. Third, the Court holds that a jury could find that the Board’s knowledge of the male student’s history of sexual harassment; the female student’s complaint of the male student; the knowledge of the bait scheme; and the Board’s failure to respond at all were sufficiently “severe” and “objectively offensive.”

Fourth, the Court finds that based on cumulative circumstances in which the Board did not revise sexual harassment policies, a jury could reasonably find that the Board’s actions were deliberately indifferent. Fifth, the Court holds that a jury could find that the sexual harassment and use in the bait scheme barred the female student’s ability to receive an education. The female student missed school as a direct result of the rape and ultimately had to transfer schools.

Here, the Eleventh Circuit held that a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the plaintiff has satisfied all five elements that are necessary to succeed under Title IX. Thus, the lawsuit needs to go before a jury in order for the relevant facts to be weighed and decided upon.

The Eleventh Circuit’s decision puts [her] one step closer to the ultimate goal

Attorneys for the female student appeared alongside representatives from the Department of Justice and the Women’s Law Project in May. Both organizations filed briefs last year on the plaintiff’s behalf, asking for the case to be heard by a jury.

In an interview with the Associated Press, plaintiff’s attorney, Eric Artrip, said the Eleventh Circuit’s decision puts his client one step closer to their ultimate goal. “Hopefully, one day soon, our client will have her day in front of a jury,” he said. “That’s what we’ve wanted all along and that’s what she’s wanted all along.”

Hannah Emory, Associate Editor
About Hannah Emory, Associate Editor (15 Articles)
Hannah Emory is a Campbell Law graduate and served as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer for the 2015-2016 academic year. She is originally from Dunn, North Carolina and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and History. Following her first year of law school, Hannah interned at the North Carolina Office of the Juvenile Defender.
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