In an important report from the Associated Press, Michelle R. Smith, Reese Dunklin, and Emily Scmall detail the horrible struggles student victims of sexual assault from other students have gone through to get justice. One of the barriers to justice is the schools themselves and the administrations that are more worried about protecting the institution from outside criticism, than seeking justice and protecting victims of sexual assault as Smith explains, “The barriers are formidable, and can lead to long, grueling fights: Public schools in many states enjoy powerful shields, including caps on damages and high legal hurdles to prove misconduct. And a handful of states offer schools complete immunity from lawsuits in state court.” One of the main cases detailed in the report shows this. According to Smith, “A Miami mother sued in 2012 after she said her second-grader was repeatedly abused by an older boy at his charter school. Eventually, the 7-year-old tried to kill himself by walking into traffic with his eyes closed, according to the family’s lawsuit. Two years later, the little boy testified, he still had nightmares his tormenter would crawl in through his bedroom window and kill his mother. His mother came to believe the school put its reputation above her son’s well-being. “You can’t protect the institution and forget about the students,” she said.” The Miami mother( name anonymous for protection) is exactly right and it’s especially heartbreaking to see young children mentally and physically tortured, have to deal with this stuff while the school that is supposedly supposed to protect them just see the kids as pressure and would rather protect the perpetrator and their own reputation.
The mother and her son would eventually have to take them to court to sue, another mentally debilitating and costly expense for families. The details of the story are incredibly graphic so proceed at your own caution. “According to her lawsuit, an 11-year-old boy forced him to perform oral sex in a transport van. The mother said she reported it to the school, which promised to monitor the older boy. Later, he cornered the second-grader twice in a school bathroom, again forcing him to perform oral sex, the lawsuit said. In a videotaped deposition played at the 2014 trial, the boy described feeling the abuse “would happen again and again.” He said the smell of a school bathroom still triggered painful memories, leaving him feeling “very nervous, very upset, very scared.” The school replied that it took reasonable measures to keep the students away from each other, but in light of testimony this is a ridiculously offensive assertion.
As mentioned earlier many of the issues with school reactions are rooted in the complicated burden of proofs and ridiculous cap limits on the amounts that can be rewarded that provide the schools with legal shields as Smith calls them. These sometimes differ from state to state. For example Virginia, and Georgia give their schools an all encompassing immunity from state law suits. Illinois requires that the plaintiff must prove the school was actually demonstrating willful conduct to hurt the child’s ability to attend school rather than just having to prove negligence, and Tennessee doesn’t even allow plaintiffs a jury trial but instead a single judge who is usually incentivized to side with the government. Here’s some more details about the legal difficulties victims go through. “The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that all public school districts can be held liable under Title IX. Victims of sexual assault or harassment must show that school officials with the power to act were deliberately indifferent to known sexual harassment, and that the harassment was so bad it effectively barred a student’s access to an education. That means victims who might find it difficult to sue in state court can often seek justice in federal court, though that’s not necessarily easier.” Many of these suits take years and a lot of money to conduct and victims priorities are many times put behind the priorities of states making sure they don’t look bad or lose much money. Though one advantage to suing in federal court as the report explains is that the case is not in the community which might pressure the victim into remaining silent.
The victims themselves who courageously testify about the horrors want to explain that they not only do it for themselves but also for others and helping to prevent these kinds of things from happening to other students who schools don’t want to protect. “One of the things that kept him going – he didn’t want it to happen to someone else,” Heiss said. That’s often the main motivator to sue, said Adele Kimmel, who specializes in student abuse cases for the Washington, D.C., nonprofit law firm Public Justice. Settlement agreements can require anti-bullying training in addition to money – or sometimes instead of it.” The mother of the victim in Florida says that being able to testify allowed her son to feel vindicated. “It seemed like he was vindicated simply by saying, ‘This happened. It hurt me. I’m still here.”‘ It’s a testament to the courage of the victims and their families that they wish to see change not just for their own situations but to help others. Let’s not fail them