Fayette County High School has very strict rules about sex on campus. An “act of sexual conduct” or “indecent exposure,” according to the school’s code of conduct, can get a student suspended or expelled.
That policy applies even to alleged victims of sexual assault, per a complaint filed Friday against the Fayette County Board of Education in Fayetteville, Ga., and several senior school officials. When a 16-year old female student, cited in the complaint as “A.P.,” told administrators that she was sexually assaulted, coerced into performing oral sex on a male classmate, she was expelled for the rest of the school year.
The principal cited “sexual impropriety.”
These stories are popping up in high schools across the country, said Neena Chaudhry, general counsel and Title IX specialist at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), which filed the complaint on behalf of the alleged victim, who chose to remain anonymous to mitigate potential backlash from her community. Schools are “retaliating” against female students, Chaudhry said, punishing them for violating school sex codes when they come forward with a sexual assault.
“There is a lot of shaming and blaming that is going on,” Chaudhry said.
Retaliation tactics can disproportionately affect young women of color, said Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, director of educational equity at NWLC and one of the lawyers representing the alleged victim. “You see [this kind of response] largely in areas where there are high populations of people of color mostly because those schools tend to rely on harsh disciplinary practices and zero tolerance approaches.”
The NWLC is filing against Fayette County High School for violating Title IX, failing to create an educational environment free from gender-based discrimination. Under Title IX, schools have a responsibility to investigate every alleged incident of student sexual assault.
“No one ever investigated this as if it was a sexual assault, even though [the victim] was consistent throughout, saying this happened against her will,” said Onyeka-Crawford.
While the Fayette County School Board would not comment specifically on the facts of this case, citing student privacy laws, Melinda Berry Dreisbach, a public information officer for the school district, said the Board “fully expects to prevail on the legal and factual merits of the claims.”
“The school system follows its student discipline code of conduct in providing due process to all students,” Berry Dreisback wrote in an email to The Lily. “We also abide by our policies regarding sexual harassment.”
Many people don’t realize that Title IX applies to K-12 schools, along with colleges and universities, said Chaudhry. While colleges rushed to reform their Title IX policies under pressure from the Obama administration, hiring TItle IX coordinators and streamlining plans for sexual assault investigations, primary and secondary schools, she said, often lag behind, largely free from the kind of media attention that might prompt stricter adherence to Title IX.
In this case, the complainant was allegedly assaulted in a school hallway by a male classmate. They talked. They kissed a little bit. And then, according to the complaint, he began asking her for oral sex. When she said no, he grabbed her neck. When she said no again, he grabbed her neck so hard that she fell.
“A.P. feared for her safety and believed that J. would not let her leave until he got what he wanted, and so she unwillingly and briefly performed oral sex,” the plaintiff’s lawyers write in the complaint.
She told a school counselor what happened, who then told senior administrators, said Onyeka-Crawford. Because the alleged victim “giggled” while describing the assault, the counselor told the administrators he believed the incident to have been “consensual,” according to the complaint. After reviewing videotape of the hallway — which did not capture any footage of the assault — and talking to both the alleged victim and accused, the assistant principal suspended A.P. for 10 days, scheduling a hearing to determine “further disciplinary action.”
“At no point did Title IX get mentioned,” said Onyeka-Crawford. When the student made the report, she said, she should have been advised of her rights under Title IX. She should have been told about the school’s procedures around sexual assault and given contact information for a Title IX coordinator, a school-appointed representative who makes sure that the school complies with the law under Title IX. (While individual schools might not have their own Title IX coordinators, Chaudhry said, there should at least be one for each school district.)
During the hearing, no evidence was presented that conflicted with the alleged victim’s story; “J” never testified. In a closing statement, the school principal argued that A.P. had planned to perform oral sex on the accused as a “birthday gift,” a claim that was never mentioned during the hearing. On the principal’s recommendation, the alleged victim was expelled for the rest of the year. The hearing took place in September.
She was referred to Fayette County Alternative School, but didn’t want to go because it seemed like “J” might be there, too. She saw him post about it on social media.
A.P. is 18 now. It’s been two years since the alleged assault.
She hasn’t been back to school since.