Four years ago, a 14-year-old special-education student was allegedly sexually assaulted in an Alabama middle-school bathroom after school staff evidently got overconfident in their abilities to carry out a sting operation against another student. When the girl’s guardian sued the school, district, and key officials after the 2010 incident, however, a court dismissed the federal charges in the case (both sides appealed). Now the Department of Justice has filed a brief in support of the girl, outlining the inappropriate actions taken by the Madison County School Board and Sparkman Middle School.
According to the DOJ brief, the 16-year-old boy in question, who has not been named, was suspected of acting inappropriately toward students in the past, but the school insisted it did not have enough evidence to monitor him more heavily. At one point, he propositioned the 14-year-old girl:
On January 22, 2010, while assisting custodians near the end of the day, [the boy] approached [the girl], a 14-year-old girl, who had already rebuffed his recent, repeated propositions to meet in the boys’ bathroom for sex. [The girl] immediately reported the incident to [June] Simpson, a teacher’s aide, who suggested that [the girl] meet [the boy] in the bathroom where teachers could be positioned to catch him “in the act” before anything happened. [The girl] initially refused, but then acquiesced.
The girl and aide then told the vice-principal about the plan, who did not shut it down. According to the school’s policy, the harasser could only be punished if he was caught red-handed; repeated complaints were not enough. The brief states that the boy was actually under in-school suspension when he propositioned the girl for the last time and that the school had repeatedly failed to make students safe in part because it failed to seriously document the allegations against him.
Needless to say, the sting operation didn’t end well: A medical examination confirmed the girl was sodomized. She ultimately left the school and moved to another state, while the teenage boy was allowed to return shortly thereafter. To make matters worse, the vice-principal at the time, Jeanne Dunaway, was promoted to principal of an elementary school. (The aide who hatched the plan resigned.)
Importantly, the DOJ brief argues that the girl’s family does have standing to sue under Title IX, because it “makes a recipient of federal funds, here, the school district, ‘liable for [its] deliberate indifference to known acts of peer sexual harassment.’”
A small victory, for what it’s worth. But the larger lesson for school officials: Sting operations involving your students are always, every time, forever, a terrible, terrible idea.