A discrimination lawsuit against Fairfax County Public Schools will move forward after a federal appeals court ruled in favor of a girl who says the school system failed to respond to her sexual assault claim when she was in middle school.
The plaintiff, who uses the pseudonyms B.R. and Kate to protect her identity, filed a suit under Title IX against Fairfax in July 2019 alleging that the school district, along with several administrators and teachers, “deflected, minimized, and ignored” complaints she made about being sexually harassed and raped by another student while attending Rachel Carson Middle School from October 2011 until February 2012.
Kate claims the school district discriminated against her and sympathized with her assailant when she came forward instead of taking action – thus failing to stop the assailant from causing her further harm – which would violate Title IX laws.
Kate initially filed an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in 2014. The department launched an investigation into her allegations against Fairfax. A settlement was reached between OCR and Fairfax after the department “found some instances in which the Division’s response to the offenses may not have been prompt and appropriate under Title IX.”
As a result, OCR required Fairfax to revamp its sexual assault, harassment and abuse policies. But Kate still filed a complaint with the U.S. Eastern District Court of Virginia in 2019. The suit seeks monetary damages but does not specify how much.
Fairfax sought to have Kate’s suit dismissed on the grounds that she did not obtain permission to use a pseudonym when filing the lawsuit and thus did not have standing because the court could not confirm her identity. In response to the county’s motion, Kate filed an amended complaint and revealed her identity to the court.
Earlier this month, the Fourth Circuit Court denied Fairfax’s motion to dismiss the case stating “there is nothing in [Kate’s] complaint to suggest that what she alleged was fictitious.” The court agreed with the district court’s analysis that the “highly sensitive and . . . immensely personal nature” of the allegations “warrant[ed] the utmost level of privacy.”
The court affirmed the plaintiff is allowed to proceed with her case under the pseudonym B.R./Kate. No trial date has been set.
Shatter the Silence Fairfax County Public Schools, an advocacy group committed to fighting what it says is sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination in the county school system, said in a news release that “this ruling comes as the latest blow against Fairfax County Public Schools, which has suffered numerous setbacks in the past two years in its efforts to cover up child sexual abuse and harassment.”
Fairfax schools officials did not respond to a request for comment about Kate’s case, except to say the district does not plan to appeal the Fourth Circuit’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Kate’s case is currently one of two Title IX lawsuits against Fairfax.
In a separate suit filed in May 2018, the plaintiff, who used the pseudonym “Jane Doe” to protect her identity, claimed that after she was sexually assaulted and raped by an older Fairfax student during a band trip in March 2017, “FCPS did not take any action to ensure [the plaintiff’s] safety, provide necessary medical attention or counseling or otherwise respond to the reported sexual assault.”
As in Kate’s case, Doe argued the school system’s failure to take action after she reported the incident violated her rights under Title IX because it caused her to struggle emotionally, academically and physically – undermining and detracting from her educational experience.
During the first trial in that case, in 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia found that the Fairfax School Board “failed to take reasonable steps to preserve the documents” relating to Doe’s case and destroyed or lost copies of interview notes with student witnesses and text messages exchanged between school officials. However, a jury found in favor of the county.
Doe requested a new trial on the grounds that the verdict was not supported by the evidence. The district judge rejected her request, but that decision was overturned by the Fourth Circuit, which has ordered a new trial.
In addition to Kate’s and Doe’s lawsuits, Fairfax has three other outstanding investigations with the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for its handling of sexual assault and harassment.
Also, in December 2020, the school district reached a settlement with the office after female hockey players attending Lake Braddock Secondary School were cut from the team after telling their principal they were being sexually harassed.
The settlement agreement requires the school district to train school staff responsible for handling sexual harassment cases, as well as its other employees, “regarding the obligations under Title IX, including providing a prompt and equitable resolution with respect to reports of sexual harassment.”
However, even under increased scrutiny by the Department of Education, sexual assault cases seem to keep happening within the school district.
The Fairfax Times reported a week ago that a 19-year-old who graduated from Fairfax schools in 2021 has also filed a complaint with school officials detailing how another Fairfax student sexually assaulted her at Lake Braddock Secondary School.