Administrators at an Alabama middle school showed “deliberate indifference” to allegations that a teacher’s aide persuaded a girl to act as bait to catch an accused sexual predator, a federal court of appeals decided Wednesday.
According to the girl, who asked CNN to call her “Jaden,” a fellow student sodomized her in a school bathroom. She was 14 at the time.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals said Sparkman Middle School administrators Ronnie Blair, Teresa Terrell and Jeanne Dunaway knew that Jaden’s alleged attacker had a “history of sexual and violent misconduct” and failed to “adequately supervise” him.
Their negligence, according to the 75-page decision that reverses a 2013 district court’s ruling, puts Madison County Schools in violation of Title IX.
Title IX is a federal law aimed at ending sexual discrimination in education. In part, it dictates how schools that receive federal funds must respond to claims of sexual harassment.
The ruling is the latest step in an ongoing legal battle that started in 2010, when Jaden’s father filed a lawsuit against Madison County Schools and its officials.
Propositioned in the hallway
According to court records, a 16-year-old student approached Jaden in the hallway on January 22, 2010, and asked her to meet him in a bathroom for sex.
It was not the first time the boy had propositioned her, said Jaden, who was enrolled in the school’s special education program.
Usually, she ignored him, but on that day Jaden told a teacher’s aide, June Ann Simpson. According to the lawsuit, Simpson knew of other girls whom the boy had tried to lure into a bathroom for sex. Simpson told the school’s principal, Blair, about the allegations.
According to a 2012 deposition, Blair told Simpson the boy would have to be proven guilty to be punished. In response, Simpson crafted a plan to prove the allegations, using Jaden as bait.
The idea was to have the girl agree to meet the boy in a bathroom. Simpson would watch surveillance video, and teachers would intervene before anything happened.
Attorneys for the school board claim that administrators took claims of the student’s alleged harassment seriously, putting him into “In School Suspension” for 20 days before the incident with Jaden and that they knew nothing about Simpson’s alleged plan.
Jaden and Simpson claim they went to the office of vice principal Jeanne Dunaway, and when Simpson told Dunaway about the plan, she said, Dunaway did not respond. During a deposition, Dunaway denied the conversation happened.
Jaden then left Dunaway’s office and found the boy in the hallway to tell him they could “do it,” Jaden told CNN.
Simpson stayed behind to watch surveillance monitors, hoping to catch the two walking into the bathroom. She never saw them.
According to Jaden’s written statement after the incident, the boy made a last-minute change to go into a different bathroom.
Once there, Jaden says she tried to stall the boy, even telling him she’d changed her mind and didn’t want to do it, hoping a teacher would rush in. The boy sodomized her, Jaden said.
June Ann Simpson resigned shortly after the incident and is not named as a defendant in the case. Blair and Teresa Terrell kept their jobs as principal and assistant principal at Sparkman. Dunaway was promoted and is now the principal at nearby Madison County Elementary School.
The alleged attacker was never charged.
‘Day in front of a jury’
In May, attorneys for Jaden appeared alongside representatives from the Department of Justice and the Women’s Law Project. Both organizations, along with the National Women’s Law Center, filed briefs last year on Jaden’s behalf, asking for her case to be heard by a jury.
Jade’s attorney, Eric Artrip, said Wednesday’s appeals court decision puts Jaden one step closer to that goal.
“Hopefully with this decision in place our client will, one day soon, have her day in front of a jury.”
Mark Boardman, who represents Madison County Schools and the administrators named in the 2010 lawsuit, argued in May that, “the school administrators took appropriate action and complied completely with federal law as soon as they were notified of this unfortunate incident.”
The appeals court disagreed, calling into question the board’s record-keeping, which permitted school officials to shred students’ disciplinary paper records at the end of each year, “impeding (their) ability to adequately respond to the suspect’s pervasive sexual harassment allegations.”
Boardman said that after the incident, officials allowed Jaden to return to class as normal, therefore not interfering with her ability to earn an education.
But the judges said the board failed “to acknowledge the rape” or “respond to (Jaden’s) traumatic injury” with any sort of counseling or support. The school’s “unreasonable response,” paired with the suspect’s return to Sparkman Middle School after a short stint at an alternative school, caused Jaden to withdraw from school, the court decided, impeding with her access to education.
The board’s only policy change following the incident was its decision to “discontinue a one-day sexual harassment training workshop for administrators at the Madison County Administrator Academy,” further demonstrating that they were deliberately indifferent.
Neither Boardman nor any Madison County School representative were available for comment on Wednesday’s ruling.
According to Jaden’s legal team, either party that is unhappy with the decision has 21 days to file a motion to have the case argued by the same three-judge panel or by all of the 11th Circuit judges. Either party could also appeal the case to the Supreme Court.
If neither of those petitions are filed, the case will be remanded back to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama to be tried before a jury.
With still a long road ahead, Artrip said his team is thankful for Wednesday’s victory.
“We are very pleased with the 11th Circuit’s decision that Title IX reaches the kind of behavior we saw on display in this case,” he said. “We hope that this decision will serve to make women and girls safer in the educational setting.”