ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A federal appeals court on Wednesday reinstated a lawsuit from a northern Virginia student who said her school failed to take appropriate action after she said she was sexually assaulted on a band trip.
The student, who has since graduated, said administrators at Oakton High School in Fairfax County, treated her with indifference after she said another student touched her inappropriately without her consent on a school bus during an out-of-state trip in 2017.
At a trial in 2019 in federal court in Alexandria, a jury found that she had indeed been assaulted. But they tossed out her case on a technicality, ruling that the school system had no “actual notice” of the assault.
Indeed, there was clear indication from the jury that it was confused over what was required to show actual notice. The jury asked a question about the standard during its deliberations, and multiple jurors said after the case that there was a misunderstanding.
In Wednesday’s 2-1 ruling from a three judge-panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Judge James Wynn said it was obvious that the school had notice, given that the girl herself told administrators she’d been touched without her consent, and multiple students and parents reported the alleged assault as word got around.
At the 2019 trial, the school system’s lawyers argued that no assault took place. They said evidence showed that the girl was ambivalent about her participation in the conduct and really became upset only after learning the male student had a girlfriend.
The female student, identified in court only as Jane Doe, testified that she tried to block the male student’s hands from groping her while they huddled under a blanket and that she at one point pulled her hand away from his genitals only to have him grab it and put it back.
She acknowledged that she never told him “no” and she didn’t try to get up and walk away. But she was adamant she didn’t consent.
“It’s pretty simple. I never said ‘yes’ to him doing any of that to me,” she testified.
The boy who committed the alleged assault was not punished. Emails sent by administrators included jokes about the alleged assault, including a school security officer who sent a text making a “one time at band camp” joke about the incident, referring to a line in the movie “American Pie” about sexual activity among band students.
In a statement provided by her lawyers Wednesday, Doe said she was grateful for the appeals court’s ruling. “It means a lot to me that the appeals court’s strong opinion will protect other survivors. Every student deserves to feel safe in school,” she said.
Alexandra Brodsky, a lawyer with Public Justice, which represented Doe, said that “FCPS’s behavior — dismissing a student’s report of sexual assault out of hand — is too common among school districts across the country. The Fourth Circuit’s ruling in Jane Doe’s case should serve as a warning that all schools must train staff to recognize and address sexual harassment.”
Doe’s lawsuit was one of four lawsuits filed against Fairfax County Public Schools, the nation’s 10th largest school system, over a two-year period over its handling of sexual-assault claims.
The school system issued a brief statement Wednesday saying it respects the court’s decision and is reviewing it. The school system could appeal the ruling to either the full 4th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a dissent, Judge Paul Niemeyer argued that the jury’s verdict should have stood. He said that while the school system did receive notice of the alleged assault, the after-the-fact notice about an isolated, one-time incident afforded no real opportunity for the school district to have taken action.