Middle school uses a student as rape bait; the Eleventh Circuit allows the student's suit to proceed

Hill v. Madison Cnty. Sch. Bd., Nos. 14-12481, 13-15444 (11th Cir. Aug. 12, 2015).

This case arises from a fellow student’s January 2010 rape of Jane Doe, a 14-year-old student at Sparkman Middle School in Ardmore, Alabama. If Doe’s evidence is believed, as it must be at this stage, here is what happened:

Under Sparkman Middle School’s policy, a student could be disciplined for sexual harassment only if the student was caught in the act, if there was physical evidence of harassment, or if the accused student confessed. On receiving a complaint of sexual harassment, the school performed an investigation, but at the end of every academic year, the written investigation records were shredded. Only a database containing bare-bones data remained. 

Over the year and a half preceding Jane Doe’s rape, CJC, a 15-year-old eighth grader, had accumulated numerous infractions for sexual misconduct and other misbehavior. CJC was also the subject of allegations for which he did not face discipline—including an allegation that he had propositioned Doe to have sex with him in a bathroom. 

Then, on the day of the rape, Jane Doe approached a teacher’s aide to complain that CJC had again asked her to have sex with him. The aide, with the concurrence of an assistant principal, proposed that Doe meet CJC in the bathroom so that he could be caught in the attempt and disciplined. Recall that under Sparkman’s policy, being caught in the act was one of few ways a harasser could be disciplined. Doe first demurred to this proposed sting, then agreed. 

So Doe entered a bathroom, followed by CJC. CJC anally raped her in one of the stalls. The two were later found in the stall by another teacher. According to the teacher’s aide who planned the operation, her planned sting of CJC went awry “because Doe failed to meet CJC at the correct bathroom.” 

Despite conclusive physical evidence of rape, CJC was never criminally charged. The school district sent CJC to another school, but a few months later he returned to Sparkman. Sparkman’s database lists his rape of Doe as “inappropriate touching.” Other evidence of the investigation was destroyed, as usual, at the end of the school year. Sparkman has not changed its policies on sexual harassment or recordkeeping.

Doe, who of course has suffered physical and psychological trauma, sued the school, the school board, and several individual school employees. She asserted that the school had violated Title IX as well as the Constitution. The district court dismissed her claims on summary judgment.

In a long opinion that clarifies the standards for Title IX claims like Doe’s, the Eleventh Circuit holds that Doe’s Title IX claim should not have been dismissed on summary judgment. It partially affirms the district court on Doe’s constitutional claims, but it allows Doe’s constitutional claims against Sparkman Middle School’s principal and assistant principal to proceed.