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DOE Failed To Protect Students From Sexual Assaults, Lawsuit Alleges

Collaborative Arts Middle School in Queens is one of four public schools named in a sexual assault lawsuit against the city's Department of Education.
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Collaborative Arts Middle School in Queens is one of four public schools named in a sexual assault lawsuit against the city's Department of Education. Photo from Google maps

A 14-year-old girl with autism raped in a school stairwell. A 13-year-old with a learning disability reported a boy reached under her skirt and touched her — only to be told by a dean, “Oh, he just likes you.”

A new lawsuit filed this week accuses the NYC Department of Education of failing to protect students against sexual assaults, file official complaints, conduct proper investigations, and support survivors dealing with trauma.

Legal Services NYC filed the suit on behalf of four girls, ages 12 to 18, who are all New York City public school students of color with disabilities. The allegations included two rapes as well as repeated harassment spanning years. In all four cases, the suit said, students reported incidents to school officials multiple times. Yet school officials did not protect students from accelerating harassment or provide appropriate post-trauma support, according to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Listen to Jessica Gould's report on WNYC:

“We wanted to bring this lawsuit not only to address the pervasive sexual assault in NYC schools but the failure of the schools to address the trauma and its impact on students’ mental and emotional health,” said Katrina Feldkamp, Equal Justice Works Fellow, sponsored by The Arnold & Porter Foundation at Bronx Legal Services.

Details of the allegations, summarized below, are disturbing.

Jane Doe, who has autism, was 12 when she was first abused by a classmate at middle school I.S. 584 in the Bronx in 2016. According to the lawsuit, a boy in her grade allegedly began groping her. She and her mother complained — and he was suspended for a while — but the behavior continued off and on for years. Then last fall, the boy allegedly raped Jane Doe in a stairwell. Her grades have suffered and she cries in class. She recently switched schools, the suit said.

Anna Doe has an intellectual disability. She’s 11 and was in sixth grade at I.S. 237 in Queens last June when she was allegedly raped by a fellow student in a shed near school grounds on her way home from school. The suit said her mother reported the rape to the school. But her mother felt administrators’ questions blamed Anna Doe by asking why she had gone off campus to get a snack and why she had gone with her assailant into the shed. According to the suit, Anna Doe regularly repeats, “It’s not my fault.”

Maria Doe is 13 and has a learning disability. She was a student at Collaborative Arts Middle School in Queens last year when she was taunted, punched and sexually assaulted by a student who reached up her skirt, and another who groped her breast. According to the suit, school staff was dismissive of her reports. Maria Doe has had anxiety and started cutting, the suit said, and is now receiving home instruction.

Lisa Doe is 18 and has a learning disability. She goes to Explorations Academy in the Bronx. Last fall, she was repeatedly groped by another student. The suit said neither she nor her family were informed about how to file an official Title 9 complaint; she has panic attacks and has switched schools.

A spokesman for the DOE issued the following statement: “Our schools must be safe and inclusive environments, and there is absolutely zero tolerance for any sexual misconduct. Any allegation must be reported, investigated and addressed, and this work is a shared responsibility of all DOE staff including the Sexual Harassment Liaisons in every school and a Title IX coordinator who oversees DOE compliance. We’ll review the lawsuit.”

According to the DOE, all schools must have a designated liaison in charge of sexual harassment prevention, and regulations outline "strict protocols" requiring immediate reporting and investigation of incidents. Since last year 3,000 school staff members have been trained on harassment, as well as dating violence and gender inclusivity.

New York City Council’s education committee is holding a hearing today on the school system’s compliance with Title IX, which bars discrimination on the basis of gender in any educational program that receives federal funds. The statute covers a broad range of equity issues from sexual harassment to equity in sports.

Council members said they’re concerned the DOE doesn’t have enough staff dedicated to Title IX compliance which may have contributed to the problems outlined in the lawsuit.

“There’s only one Title IX coordinator for our whole school system that’s comprised of 1.1 million students,” said Councilmember Mark Treyger, chairman of the education committee. “It's insulting and outrageous that there’s only one person in this role.”

Attorneys with Legal Services said their analysis of state statistics show an increase in reports of harassment at city schools in recent years. That mirrors a citywide spike in sexual assault complaints to the NYPD in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Law enforcement officials have said generally the overall increase may be the result of additional awareness and reporting; not necessarily more assaults.

Legal Services is arguing that the trauma stemming from assaults should be considered a disability unto itself, and that schools are compelled to address that trauma as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The suit seeks damages for the victims and calls for systemic change at the education department, including more staff, clearer policies, and more help for traumatized students.

Jessica Gould is a reporter in the newsroom at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @ByJessicaGould.

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