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Mich. District Facing Title IX Lawsuit After Student's Sexual Assault

The National Women's Law Center filed a Title IX lawsuit today against a Mich. district that allegedly failed to respond to the sexual assault of a female high school student by a player on the school's basketball team.

Title IX, the federal legislation that prohibits gender discrimination in any federally financed education program or activity, is most often associated with athletics, but also applies to school-based sexual violence (among other things). The U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights issued a Dear Colleague letter back in April 2011 to remind districts that sexual harassment and sexual violence on campus violated Title IX's guarantee to an education free from discrimination.

According to the letter, if a school "knows or reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment," it must "take immediate action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects."

In its lawsuit filed today, the National Women's Law Center alleges that the Forest Hills (Mich.) School District failed to do exactly that.

The lawsuit claims that in 2010 a member of the Forest Hills Central High School basketball team sexually assaulted a female student in a soundproof band room. The next day, the student allegedly notified a teacher of the assault, who in turn informed the school's principal.

According to the lawsuit, the principal told the girl's parents to "take time to think through whether they want to report the incident to the police," which the parents believed was meant to dissuade them from following through with a full-fledged police investigation.

The parents went ahead and filed a police report, concerned that the student may sexually assault other girls. Two weeks later, a second female student allegedly reported to the principal that she had been assaulted by the same basketball player while in the school parking lot. The lawsuit claims that the district "conducted no investigation of the second attack," and never again interviewed the first alleged victim after the police department began its investigation.

According to the lawsuit, the first female victim and the alleged attacker shared a class for two and a half weeks after the alleged assault took place before the school changed the basketball player's class schedule. Once word began to spread about the alleged assault, other students reportedly began harassing and bullying the first female victim throughout the rest of the school year. The lawsuit claims that the female student's mother informed the school's Title IX coordinator about the ongoing harassment, but no investigation resulted from the information.

The alleged attacker was later charged with two counts of criminal sexual conduct and pled guilty to a single count of misdemeanor assault and battery. The lawsuit claims that the district's only recourse for the alleged attacker's criminal charges was a temporary benching from the basketball team.

"This school completely ignored its legal responsibility to address student-on-student sexual harassment and failed to take reasonable steps to protect the victim," said Fatima Goss Graves, the NWLC vice president of education and employment, in a statement. "The school's failure to address the harassment sends a chilling message to students that they should remain silent in the face of sexual assault and cannot count on their school to provide a safe learning environment."

The plaintiff, referred to in the lawsuit as Jane Doe, ended up leaving the school in the 2011-12 school year after learning that her alleged attacker would be allowed to return to school. The lawsuit claims that as a result of the incident, she spent hours per school day in the school guidance office, her grades dropped, and she became "too afraid to stay after school to get help from teachers as she had previously done."

In a letter dated September 28, 2012, OCR concluded that the district "did not thoroughly or promptly investigate either allegation of sexual harassment," according to a report from WoodTV.com. The NWLC notes the OCR's findings in its lawsuit against the district.

For more on the school-based applications of Title IX, check out this package of stories written last year for the 40th anniversary of the law. It includes a Commentary from Ms. Graves of the NWLC about the work that's left to do with regards to Title IX.

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