Wealthy county in court over sexual misconduct at schools

By Matthew Barakat
Associated Press

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — Virginia’s largest school district is defending itself against three separate federal lawsuits filed by students who say the school system botched sexual misconduct investigations.

Two involve boys who say Fairfax County Public Schools wrongly punished them based on false accusations. A third accuses the same school system of ignoring a girl’s complaints that she was groped on a band trip.

All three say the nation’s 10th largest school system mishandled their cases, with serious consequences for students on the wrong side of its rulings.

“You have assistant principals doing these investigations, and they’re really not trained very well for this,” said Jesse Binnall, who represents one of the boys. The students filed as John and Jane Does to protect their privacy.

These cases come as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos considers more than 100,000 comments reacting to her proposed revisions to Title IX rules governing how schools and colleges handle sexual misconduct allegations.

An analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union found that some of the changes would increase due process rights for the accused, while others would effectively deny them to victims.

Schools would have to dismiss without investigation any complaints of unwelcome conduct that don’t meet a tough new standard, of being “so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it effectively denies” access to education.

Binnall said the new rules “are meant to address situations just like” the cases in Fairfax County. His client was expelled during his senior year and forced to enroll in an alternative school, removing him from what turned out to be a state championship wrestling team. The boy now worries his wrestling scholarship is in doubt because of the blemish on his record.

The judge overseeing the other boy’s case has expressed her own concerns about due process for the accused, but said the law may be against him regardless, because of the extraordinary leeway given to schools in disciplining students.

“It’s a really difficult situation because the schools absolutely have an obligation to avoid any kind of harassing environment or threatening environment for any student, and yet one would have to be an idiot not to recognize, especially for young teenagers, that, you know, they’re interested in sex, they are foolish in how they act, they can have grudges,” U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said at a pretrial hearing. “You know, all of us were teenagers at one time.”

The case before Brinkema involves a sophomore at Lake Braddock High School who was transferred to another school after accusations that he exposed himself and grabbed one student, and that he made obnoxious comments to another, including a joke asking “how a girl doesn’t get an orgasm putting a tampon in.”

The student who accused him of exposing himself and grabbing her later retracted most of her allegations. The boy admitted making the jokes.

A Fairfax County Public Schools official declined to comment on the cases. In court, a lawyer for the school system said some of the allegations in the Lake Braddock case were independently corroborated, even if the first accuser did retract her statements.

Binnall’s client, who was a senior at Robinson High School, was initially accused of smacking a girl on the backside as she walked by.

Eventually, another boy took responsibility, admitting that he was the one who smacked her.

But by then, other allegations had been leveled, accusing the Robinson senior of making statements and sending a leering message on social media to a girl indicating his sexual interest in her.

One of the accusers in the Robinson case also partially retracted her allegations, the lawsuit says, but school administrators ordered the boy transferred nonetheless to Mountain View Alternative School, ending his star turn on the school’s wrestling team, which went on to win a state championship without him.

Binnall said the school system’s rules offer no presumption of innocence to the accused.

Attorney Adele Kimmel disagrees that the system is stacked against boys, but she also feels Fairfax County does a poor job.

Her client, now in college, reported being molested on the Oakton High School band’s bus, only to find herself under investigation for allegedly engaging in consensual sexual activity on a school trip.

The girl says the school’s treatment of her inflicted severe emotional harm. The school board responded in court with a demand that she undergo a psychiatric exam to prove it.

Fairfax County, just outside the nation’s capital, is among the country’s wealthiest school districts, and it’s no stranger to these federal cases, having agreed in a 2014 federal settlement to improve its responses to sexual harassment complaints.

But Kimmel, a lawyer with Public Justice, a legal advocacy group, said its responses remain “among the worst” in the country.

Fairfax County not only demanded the psychiatric exam, it insisted that it be done during her freshman midterms at college, Kimmel said.

“They wouldn’t even wait until Spring Break,” she said. “That speaks volumes about how much Fairfax cares about the education of its students.”