WARNING: This story contains content some readers may find disturbing.
By Victor Blackwell
(CNN) — It’s an unimaginable horror. A 14-year-old girl with special needs allegedly was raped at school after a teacher’s aide persuaded her to act as bait to catch an accused sexual predator, a fellow student.
“It has essentially devastated her life,” attorney Eric Artrip — who represents the girl and her father — said of the alleged January 2010 incident.
The Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education filed an amicus brief Wednesday supporting her family’s federal lawsuit against the Madison County School Board in Alabama.
An amicus brief is a legal argument offered to the court by someone who is not a party to the case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta will decide whether to accept the argument.
“School administrators knew the student’s extensive history of sexual and violent misconduct and were alerted to the substantial risk he posed” to other students, according to the brief.
About a week before the alleged rape, Sparkman Middle School vice principals Jeanne Dunaway and Teresa Terrell received a complaint that the boy had touched a female student inappropriately and was assigned in-school suspension, according to federal attorneys.
A few days later, June Simpson, a teacher’s aide at the Huntsville-area school, told the principal, Ronnie Blair, that the boy had “repeatedly tried to convince girls to have sex with him in the boys’ bathroom on the special needs students’ corridor” and had actually had sex with one student, according to the brief.
The boy and his alleged sexual partner denied having sex in the bathroom, but Simpson recommended the boy be “constantly monitored,” according to the brief. Blair said the boy could not be punished because he had not been “caught in the act,” the brief reads.
School policy requires allegations of student-on-student misconduct be substantiated.
Trying to “catch him in the act”
On January 22, 2010, the boy approached a 14-year-old girl with special needs who had already declined his “recent, repeated propositions” for sex, according to the brief.
“She was not physically or mentally handicapped, although she does qualify for special education classes,” Artrip told CNN.
When the girl told Simpson, she encouraged the girl to “meet (the boy) in the bathroom where teachers could be positioned to ‘catch him in the act’ before anything happened,” according to the brief.
The girl initially refused, but then agreed, according to Artrip.
Simpson and the girl went to Dunaway’s office to explain the plan. Dunaway “did not respond with any advice or directive,” according to the brief.
“If this was problematic for the administration it would have been better to express that on the front end instead of the back end,” said attorney McGriff Belser III, who represents Simpson.
The girl left Dunaway’s office, found the boy in the hallway, and “agreed to meet for sex,” according to the brief.
“Something went wrong,” said Artrip.
Instead of meeting in the boys’ bathroom on the special needs students’ corridor, the boy told the girl to meet him in the sixth-grade boys’ bathroom, in another part of the school, according to the brief.
“No teachers were in the bathroom to intervene,” the brief reads.
“She stalled for time. She continually tried to fight him off but ultimately was anally raped by this young man,” Artrip told CNN.
“It was evident that this had been a severe trauma for her,” said Artrip.
Police were called and the girl was taken to the National Children’s’ Advocacy Center in Huntsville, where a rape kit was taken, Artrip told CNN.
Medical personnel found evidence of trauma “consistent with (the girl) being sodomized.” The boy claimed he had only kissed her, according to the brief.
Attorneys: Boy had a long history of serious misconduct
The girl was uncommunicative after the incident, Artrip said. The district attorney in Madison County investigated the incident, but with a victim who was unable or unwilling to talk about the incident, the office didn’t think they had a good case, and did not pursue it.
Even after viewing photographs of the girl’s injuries, vice principal Terrell “testified that she didn’t know whether (the girl) had consented to the assault,” according to the brief.
The school listed the alleged rape as “inappropriate touching a female in boys’ bathroom,” on the student’s computerized disciplinary report. He was suspended for five days and sent to an alternative school, but later returned to Sparkman after about 20 days, according to the brief.
Vice principal Dunaway testified that the girl was responsible for herself once she entered the bathroom, according the brief.
DoJ and DoE attorneys claim the boy had a long history of sexual and other misconduct in school and Sparkman Middle School administrators knew it. Several pages of the 126-page brief detail years of disciplinary problems.
The boy had been involved in 15 violent or sex-related proven incidents of misconduct before the alleged rape, according to the brief.
Federal attorneys say details about the severity of the incidents are unavailable because school administrators shredded the boy’s disciplinary files.
The girl’s father filed the federal lawsuit in October 2010 against the boy, the three administrators, the teacher’s aide and the Madison County School Board.
“We felt, (that) the teacher putting her into this position, because of the policy as interpreted by the school board and the principal, violated Title IX,” Artrip told CNN.
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.
In 2010, a district court judge allowed the father’s claims of state violations, including negligence, against Simpson and Dunaway, while dropping the boy from the lawsuit because he was a minor. The judge tossed out the federal claims — that the school district violated Title IX and that Simpson and school administrators deprived the girl of her civil rights.
Both sides have appealed.
Fighting for a jury trial
According to the rare amicus brief, written in part by an attorney with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the school, in its capacity as a recipient of federal funds is “liable for [its] deliberate indifference to known acts of peer sexual harassment.”
On the same day the federal brief was submitted, the Women’s Law Center, joined by 32 national and local organizations, submitted a joint brief supporting the family’s lawsuit. Earlier this month, the National Women’s Law Center and Artrip submitted a joint brief to the Eleventh Circuit.
Artrip told CNN his client deserves her day in court and a jury should weigh in on the Madison County District’s requirement of substantiation of allegations of student-on-student misconduct.
“We hope that the attention that this case is getting will spur a movement on these kinds of policies so that a girl can simply report sexual harassment without having a need to bring a witness with her or roll up her shirt and show bruises,” Artrip told CNN.
The girl was withdrawn from Sparkman Middle School and underwent extensive counseling. She went to live with her mother in North Carolina, but her mother died soon after. Instead of moving back to Huntsville, she and her brother were placed with Child Protective Services in North Carolina, the attorney said.
Geraldine Tibbs, the head of public relations for the Madison County Board of Education, said the board and school officials “are confident that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals will rule in favor of the Board and the administrators.”
“Our attorneys recommend that we not discuss ongoing litigation,” she said.
Ronnie Blair and Teresa Terrell are still principal and vice principal at Sparkman Middle School.
Jeanne Dunaway is now principal at Madison County Elementary School.
June Simpson resigned shortly after the incident.
“My client has gone from being a teacher’s aide to being a scapegoat,” said Simpson’s attorney.
When asked why his client thought it was a good idea to use a special needs teen as bait to catch a suspected attacker, Besler told CNN, “I don’t personally think it is a good idea. The events of this case have shown us that it was not.”
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