School system acquitted in handling of sex-assault claim

A civil jury has acquitted Virginia's largest school system of wrongdoing in its handling of a sex-assault complaint made by a student on a band trip

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- A civil jury on Friday acquitted Virginia's largest school system of wrongdoing in its handling of a sex-assault complaint made by a student on a band trip.

The student said in a lawsuit that administrators at Oakton High School acted with callous indifference when she claimed another student forced her to touch his genitals as they sat together on a 2017 bus trip to Indianapolis.

The two-week federal trial included evidence that school officials joked about the incident in texts and emails.

The school system's lawyers argued that no assault took place. They produced evidence the girl was ambivalent about her participation in the conduct and really became upset only after learning the male student had a girlfriend.

The lawsuit is one of four since 2018 accusing Fairfax County Public Schools of botching sex-harassment allegations.

The eight-person jury found that the student had indeed been assaulted. But they ruled that the school system lacked "actual knowledge" of the attack.

The student's lawyers had sought unsuccessfully for the broader "actual notice" standard to be used.

The female student, identified 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 school system's lawyer, Sona Rewari, argued that it's not so simple. She said in closings that the conduct fell into a gray area. She noted that Jane Doe, in a college admissions essay, wrote that she herself needed a long time to reach the conclusion that she had been assaulted.

School-system lawyers also argued that even if she was assaulted, school officials handled the complaint reasonably.

But Doe's lawyers say the emails and texts between school officials show they failed to take the allegation seriously. When an administrator who accompanied the band sent an email asking about possible inches of snowfall on their return trip to Oakton, the principal responded "how many inches under the blanket or on the ground?" And a school security officer sent a text making a "one time at band camp" reference to the incident, referring to a joke in the movie "American Pie" about sexual activity among band students.

"Instead of taking action in speaking to Jane Doe, they are mocking it," lawyer Lauren Khouri said in closing arguments.

After the jury's verdict was read, Doe wept and was comforted by her parents. She declined to comment.

Judge Liam O'Grady also offered some words of consolation. "You are a courageous young woman," he told her after the verdict was announced.

Linda Correia, one of her lawyers, said Doe's goal in filing the lawsuit was to expose the "terrible responses" of teachers and administrators to a student's report of an assault.

"Hopefully the testimony that came out will compel officials who have the power to correct the schools' conduct" in such cases to take action, she said.

School system spokesman John Torre, in a statement, called it an unfortunate incident between two students and said jurors found school officials responded appropriately.

"Our teachers and administrators deal with and resolve difficult situations every day. FCPS will continue to vigorously investigate complaints — as we did in this case — and take appropriate action whenever it is warranted," he said.

In the last two years, Fairfax County Public Schools, the nation's 10th largest system, has faced four federal lawsuits alleging they mishandled complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault by students. In two of those cases, girls say their claims of an assault were ignored. In the other two, boys say they were wrongly accused of harassment and were punished without proper due process.

The most recent case, filed last month, comes from a former student who says she was repeatedly sexually assaulted and raped by fellow students at Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon and at a school bus stop. The case formed the basis for a 2014 settlement between FCPS and the federal Department of Education in which the school promised to do a better job in investigation claims of sex discrimination.