Update: The Lansing School District responded with the following statement: The Lansing School District will not engage in public dialogue regarding the recent lawsuit filed alleging Title IX violations. We honor and respect the privacy of all of the individuals involved in this case, especially that of the plaintiff. Therefore, we will not participate in communicating information about this case in any manner or at any time. Our legal system has been designed to hear all sides of a claim and we trust that the truth will be revealed in due course. The safety of our students is our primary concern and we approach each situation with the care and concern afforded to us as educators.
Two new complaints filed against the school district in Lansing, Michigan, highlight the appalling lack of training, sensitivity, and sensible policies on sexual assault in K-12 public schools.
The first complaint claims, in short, that officials at Eastern High School massively failed a girl who was 14 years old at the time of her alleged assault by a peer. The unnamed girl, referred to in the complaint as Jane Doe, was "violently and forcibly assaulted" by another 14-year-old, referred to as John Roe, in a stairwell of the high school on October 13, 2015, according to the complaint, Jane Doe did not immediately report the assault out of fear that she was going to get in trouble—"which is exactly what happened," Karen Truszkowski, the girl's lawyer, explained to Broadly over the phone.
The next day, however, her attacker did report the assault. He told the school's safety officer, Willie Rogers, that Jane Doe's boyfriend had begun to threaten him. When Jane Doe was subsequently called in to give her version of events, she told Officer Rogers that "John Roe had taken her into the stairwell, took his penis out of his pants, masturbated himself, forced her to rub his penis, and attempted to force his penis into her mouth," all without her consent. The alleged sexual assault was caught on the school's security cameras, and Officer Rogers informed Jane Doe that he would be checking the cameras to see if the footage matched her account.
"They said that what she said in her statement didn't match the footage," Truszkowski said. "She said that she did not consent, but they said that it did not appear that way to them." Jane Doe was then suspended for ten days for "lewd and lascivious behavior" under the school district's policy regarding sexual activity during school. Her mother, concerned that her daughter's account of the "traumatizing sexual assault" was not being taken seriously, contacted the school to dispute the suspension. The mother also filed a report to the Lansing Police Department because the school had not.
"The data shows that girls and boys are being sexually assaulted at every level of education. It's a nationwide problem. Schools have Title IX obligations to investigate promptly when they learn about a sexual assault," Neena Chaudhry, the director of education and senior counsel with the National Women's Law Center, told Broadly over the phone. "It doesn't sound like that's what happened here. It sounds like a lot of things went wrong."
What followed was a frustrating series of attempts on the part of Jane Doe and her parents to get the school board to acknowledge that she had been sexually assaulted, and that she was not an "active participant," as they had characterized her. On October 22, they met with a student services specialist, Sharon McWilliams, who reviewed the security footage again. McWilliams found that Jane Doe had not consented to the activity, which should have settled the matter. Instead, according to the complaint, McWilliams said that although the student did not consent to the sexual activity, she did not have a "strong enough no," did not "try to get away," and "did not fight back."
They did not want her to return to school until they could put a plan in place to 'curb her behavior.'
Jane Doe was in the room for this, and she asked McWilliams, "What did you expect me to do, hit him?"
McWilliams allegedly responded, "No, you should not have hit him, but you could have said to him, 'Is that all you've got?,'" apparently advising the student that she should have made a comment about her attacker's penis size. McWilliams then turned to the principal, who was also in the meeting, and said, "Isn't that right, Mr. Stevens—wouldn't that deflate a guy if you said that to him?'"
McWilliams then said that Jane Doe could not return to school on the date her suspension was supposed to be up, according to the complaint. "They did not want her to return to school until they could put a plan in place to 'curb her behavior,'" Truszkowski explained. Which means, according to Jane Doe's lawyer, that she couldn't come back to school until she understood how to not get sexually assaulted.
The student was finally allowed back in school at the end of the month, but she was suspended again shortly afterwards for a different incident. Upon her return from the second suspension, she was told that she was not allowed back at Eastern. She was given the option to transfer, but the other schools in the district weren't exactly viable choices: Her attacker had transferred to Everett High School, and Stevens was now the principal at Sexton.
Jane Doe decided to take online courses, but the alleged punishment from her own sexual assault even followed her there. The complaint claims that she was not given all the needed resources that she was promised and was not allowed to participate in extracurricular activities, though it was agreed upon that she would be. One day, when she went to attend a Native American Youth Association meeting after school, she was approached by Officer Rogers and told she was trespassing. He physically escorted her out of the building.
The Lansing School District did not respond to request for comment, though a second sexual assault complaint suggests that the Michigan school district does not have a comprehensive sexual assault prevention policy in place and staff education on sexual assault is lacking. "The school has a policy that students involved in sexual activity are to be suspended, regardless of consent," Truszkowski said. "As to the interpretation of that policy, I'm not sure. But that's what it says." It's certainly troubling that multiple school administrators would hold a young girl accountable in her own assault.
The school has a policy that students involved in sexual activity are to be suspended, regardless of consent.
"It sounds like this school needs training for its staff, first and foremost," Chaudhry said. "Blaming the victim, requiring that the victim fight back for it to be considered sexual assault—that's all out of line with what the law says. There's guidance out there that schools should be following. It's not new guidance. The basic principles of what schools need to do has been on the books for a long time, and in recent years there's been even more specific help. For schools to claim that they don't know is inexcusable."
Truszkowski and Jane Doe are suing the school district for Title IX and Fourteenth Amendment violations, including failure to properly investigate the assault, failure to adequately train supervisors, and failing to provide a procedure for students to file complaints of sexual violence. "My hope is that [this case] will settle without going to a trial. Hopefully the school will take a look at their policies and take some steps to create policies that comply with Title IX," Truszkowski said.