Doe v. Fairfax County School Board
This is a Title IX lawsuit against the tenth largest school division in the country—Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools—for violating the rights of a student survivor of sexual assault. Jane Doe, a student in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) was sexually assaulted at age 16 by an older FCPS student on a bus during the first night of a five-day Oakton High School band trip. Although at least two students reported the sexual assault to FCPS administrators and employees soon after it happened, FCPS ignored these reports during the remainder of the trip and never once checked in with Jane Doe to offer or provide assistance, explain her rights and options, or ensure that she and other students on the trip were safe. On the band trip, FCPS did not take any action to ensure Doe’s safety, provide necessary medical attention or counseling, or otherwise respond to the reported sexual assault.
FCPS waited until the students returned to Oakton High School to speak with Doe, and the actions it eventually took further traumatized her. After Doe confirmed that she had been sexually assaulted on the band trip, FCPS employees told her she might be disciplined for what had occurred, interrogated her with victim-blaming questions, and discouraged her from reporting the sexual assault to police–all without informing her parents. In fact, school officials never informed Doe’s parents that she had reported being sexually assaulted, instead leading them to believe that their daughter might be punished for engaging in consensual sexual activity during the band trip.
School officials conducted a slipshod investigation and never informed Doe or her parents of the result. As a result of FCPS’s failure to take meaningful and appropriate action to address her sexual assault, Doe struggled academically, emotionally, and physically.
On May 23, 2018, Public Justice, Corriea & Puth, and the Ates Law Firm filed a complaint against Fairfax County School Board in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, alleging that FCPS’s response to Doe’s sexual assault violated Title IX. The complaint also alleges that FCPS’s discrimination against Doe is part of a pattern of ignoring or minimizing student-on-student sexual harassment. Even though FCPS entered into an agreement in 2014 with the U.S. Department of Education to comply with Title IX by making significant changes to its sexual harassment policies, practices and procedures, FCPS breached the agreement and continues to violate Title IX.
In June 2019, the district court denied Fairfax County’s motion for summary judgment, and the case proceeded to trial on July 29. During the course of the eight-day trial, testimony revealed Fairfax County school officials—including the high school’s principal and a security officer—made jokes about the reported sexual assault. There was also evidence that school officials destroyed or lost copies of signed witness statements from Doe, the boy, and two witnesses, as well as notes and text messages exchanged between officials.
On Friday August 9, 2019, a jury ruled that the school board was not responsible for the sexual harassment. Although the jury found that Doe was sexually harassed and that the experience deprived her of educational access, it found the school board was not liable because it lacked “actual knowledge” of what had occurred. Because the jury did not find “actual knowledge,” it did not address whether the school board acted with “deliberate indifference” to Doe’s harassment.
On August 20, 2019, Doe filed a motion for a new trial. The motion argued that the jury’s finding on “actual knowledge” was against the clear weight of the evidence, was based on confusion over the court’s instructions on “actual knowledge,” and would create a miscarriage of justice if allowed to stand. The district court denied the motion and Doe appealed. Public Justice’s Alexandra Brodsky argued the appeal from the motion for a new trial before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on January 25, 2021. The court granted the motion for a new trial on June 16, 2021. In its powerful opinion, the Fourth Circuit held that “that a school’s receipt of a report that can objectively be taken to allege sexual harassment is sufficient to establish actual notice or knowledge under Title IX—regardless of whether school officials subjectively understood the report to allege sexual harassment or whether they believed the alleged harassment actually occurred.” The court also held that, to state a claim under Title IX, a student who reports sexual harassment does not need to experience further harassment after the school’s deliberately indifferent response.
The Fourth Circuit denied the school board’s petition for rehearing en banc. On September 20, 2021, the plaintiff’s legal team learned that the school board intends to seek review of the Title IX issues in the case by the U.S. Supreme Court.
- Adele Kimmel, Alexandra Brodsky
Linda Correia and Lauren Khouri of Correia & Puth, PLLC
John Ates of Ates Law Firm