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School District Pays $600k To Settle Sexual Harassment Lawsuit After SCOTUS Declines To Hear ‘One Free Rape’ Case

Liability shouldn't hinge upon whether a "reasonable person" would view something as a sexual assault, but whether a school administrator did, school lawyers argued.

   DailyWire.com
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A Northern Virginia public school district shelled out nearly $600,000 to a girl who alleged that the school district mocked her after she reported a sexual assault, according to a May settlement obtained by The Daily Wire.

Fairfax County Public Schools had initially pledged to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where if it prevailed, it would have set a precedent making it difficult for school officials to be held responsible for failing to protect children from sexual harassment. The National School Boards Association, the group that notoriously called for anti-terrorist statutes to be deployed against conservative parents, joined the effort by writing a “friend of the court” brief, while 24 women’s and human rights groups filed briefs on the opposing side.

The case stemmed from a 2018 incident in which a 16-year-old student at Oakton High School alleged that she was sexually violated by a classmate on a school bus during a band trip. Her lawsuit said that a security guard asked if her parents planned to take legal action, and “told Doe that if she went to court she would lose, it would be a waste of money, and ‘the most that could happen to [Assailant] is being charged with battery.’”

The lawsuit accused the school district of being concerned only about its own potential liability, and not the safety of its students. Emails uncovered during the lawsuit showed administrators joking about the incident, making references to the number of “inches” of the alleged assailant’s penis and to the American Pie quote, “one time at band camp.” A judge sanctioned the school system for destroying evidence related to her complaint.

A jury found that Jane Doe had been sexually harassed but that school administrators were not responsible for it. But the case went to appeal based on whether administrators’ responsibility to act kicked in once they had “notice or knowledge” of an incident. The district said that although Assistant Principal Jennifer Hogan received allegations of nonconsensual sexual activity, she didn’t view it as such, and therefore didn’t have knowledge of sexual harassment.

Monica Beck, a Title IX attorney who was not involved with the case, previously told The Daily Wire the Doe case was critical to school administrators across the country because it could have set a nationwide precedent making it virtually impossible to hold them responsible for failing to protect children.

“’We didn’t have ‘actual knowledge’ [and therefore weren’t required to investigate under Title IX rules] because we didn’t actually know a rape occurred?’ If you don’t investigate, how are you ever going to know for sure that it happened?” Beck said.

The school district was arguing that it should not depend on whether a “reasonable person” would think what they were hearing constituted sexual assault — it should matter what a public school administrator thought. But the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled sided with Doe’s attorney, who said “It cannot be that a school administrator’s failure to understand what constitutes sexual harassment is an absolute bar to liability.” It sent the case back for a new trial based on faulty jury instructions.

Appellate Judge James Wynn wrote that FCPS was also arguing that the assault “was committed by another student and the school had no prior warning it would occur, such as a previous infraction.” But “the statute itself makes plain that a school may be held liable when it makes a student vulnerable to sexual harassment by their peers, such as by failing to respond appropriately after learning of an initial incident of sexual assault. In other words, schools do not get ‘one free rape,’” he wrote.

FCPS sought to take the case to the Supreme Court, but in November, the high court refused to hear it.

On May 9, 2023, the school district quietly settled the case by agreeing to pay $587,500 to the student, according to a settlement agreement obtained by The Daily Wire under public records laws. “The Parties acknowledge and agree that by entering into this Agreement, the School Board does not admit any wrongdoing, fault, or liability of any kind whatsoever,” the agreement said.

Doe’s attorney, Adele Kimmel, did not return a request for comment.

Shatter the Silence, a group that has called attention to the school district’s handling of sexual abuse welcomed news of the settlement.

“We’re pleased that Jane Doe finally got some form of justice,” the group said in a statement to The Daily Wire. “It only took fighting FCPS and its rape defense lawyers at Hunton Andrews Kurth in every level of the judiciary. But we’re disappointed that Jennifer Hogan… is still employed and overseeing children at Oakton High School.”

An FCPS spokesman declined to say how much money it spent fighting the case, or whether Hogan, who has since been promoted to principal, has faced any repercussions.

“The costs of a new trial were expected to significantly exceed the amount of this settlement. We hope this mutual resolution will allow all parties to move forward,” the district said in a statement. “Fairfax County Public Schools remains deeply committed to a safe, respectful, and welcoming environment for all students.”

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