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Appeals Court Revives Suit of 8th Grader Used as 'Bait' to Catch Harasser

In a case involving a school's ill-considered "rape-bait" scheme, a federal appeals court has revived an 8th grade girl's Title IX sex-discrimination and civil rights claims against an Alabama school district and two administrators. 

The ruling came in a case in which the girl was used in an attempted sting to try to catch an 8th grade boy who had been harassing girls and soliciting them for bathroom sex in 2010. The girl, identified in court papers as Jane Doe, was allegedly raped by the boy in a school bathroom as the teacher's aide who hatched the sting plan thought the girl would be in another bathroom, according to court papers.

"This is a unique case because the administrators effectively participated in [the boy's] sexual harassment by setting Doe up in a rape-bait scheme involving [the boy] in order to 'catch him in the act,'" says the unanimous opinion by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta.

The panel's 75-page decision recounts in considerable detail the facts alleged in the suit brought on behalf of Doe against the Madison County, Ala., School Board (which, as a legal matter, is the school district itself) and several school administrators and staff members.

While some of the facts are in dispute, court papers suggest the basic idea that Doe was used to try to catch an 8th grade boy identified as CJC in the act of sexual harassment was undisputed.

Court papers say a medical examination of Doe showed evidence of anal rape. CJC was never charged with a crime, but he was expelled from the middle school for a time. Doe withdrew from the school a few months after the incident.

A federal district court granted summary judgment to the school district and the officials on the Title IX and other claims.

In its Aug. 12 decision in Hill v. Madison County School Board, the 11th Circuit court revived Doe's Title IX claim against the district and her civil rights claims against the principal and an assistant principal.

The appeals panel said that while the bar is high for holding a school district responsible for student-on-student sexual harassment, Doe made out a case that officials in a position to take action had knowledge of CJC's harassment.

"Administrators learned weeks before the rape that CJC had been propositioning girls to have sex in bathrooms," the appeals court said. 

"Drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of Doe, a jury could find CJC's sexual harassment, combined with the [district's] rape-bait scheme involving CJC, had a concrete, negative effect on her ability to receive an education," the 11th Circuit court said.

The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education had filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Doe's behalf, calling for the revival of her Title IX claim. Although the appeals court agreed with that result, it rejected the federal agencies' arguments that school districts could be liable for student-on-student harassment whenever they are alerted that a harasser poses a "substantial risk" of engaging in "severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive" harassment against other students.  

"The 'substantial risk' standard emanates from teacher-on-student Title IX cases, whose requirements are not as rigorous as student-on-student cases," the 11th Circuit court said.

The appeals panel sent Doe's Title IX and civil rights claims back to the trial court.

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