Education

Judge hears arguments in suit stemming from 2012 Bibb school rape allegation

In the days following allegations that a student had been raped inside a Northeast High School restroom in 2012, school officials asked for help from Macon police in investigating the case.

Attorneys representing the student and her mother contend that transferring the case to Macon police resulted in the girl’s being subjected to further harassment in violation of the federal Title IX law, which prohibits discrimination by sex in educational programs.

The future of a federal lawsuit filed by the then 16-year-old student and her mother hinges on whether a judge grants a motion filed by the school system, which maintains that no issues exist that would require a jury’s consideration.

If the judge grants the motion, the case effectively would be over and the school district will be declared the victor.

Attorney Jarome Gautreaux argued during a Friday hearing that the school district also violated Title IX in failing to continue an investigation after Macon police had ended their criminal inquiry.

Andrea Jolliffe, who represented the school district, disputed those allegations, saying officials offered the girl services to ensure that she wasn’t deprived of educational opportunities.

School officials concluded there was likely “unwelcome” sexual contact as part of the investigation and used information from both campus police and Macon police to later make changes to school safety, she said.

Rape charges against seven teenage boys were ultimately dismissed after the girl recanted her allegations in what Gautreaux contends was an “improper” interrogation by Macon police detectives. Her mother wasn’t present for the interview.

Prosecutors have conceded that although the girl didn’t consent to all the sex acts, they didn’t think they could overcome jurors’ reasonable doubts at trial since she didn’t initially disclose everything that had happened.

The girl was charged with making false statements and falsely reporting a crime, but those charges also were later dropped.

Gautreaux argued during the hearing that the interrogation and recantation brought the girl harm in that initially she was believed as a rape victim.

Now, the allegations are disputed, even though the campus police investigation -- which included suspect interviews, an interview with the girl and medical evidence -- determined that there had been a rape, he said.

Jolliffe said there’s no evidence the school district had prior knowledge that transferring the investigation to Macon police would subject the girl to discrimination.

As a result, the school district can’t be held liable for a Title IX violation based on the girl’s interrogation, she said.

After the recantation, the school district sent letters accusing the girl and the seven boys with Code of Conduct violations for having sex on campus. Each student was suspended.

Gautreaux argued that the suspension caused harm to the girl, who, along with her mother, attended Friday’s hearing.

Jolliffe said school officials launched a required inquiry on whether the girl’s disability might have played a part in her participation in the sex acts before continuing disciplinary proceedings against her.

Although the girl had a chronological age of 16 at the time, her mental age was 9. She suffers from schizophrenia, “problematic anxiety” and mental retardation, according to the lawsuit.

In the days after the episode, school officials determined that the girl’s disability likely played a role and ended the disciplinary process without her losing access to home study tools, Jolliffe said.

She said the letters sent to the boys offered them the option to either continue with the disciplinary review process or accept a transfer to an alternative school. Either way, they couldn’t immediately return to Northeast High.

“That was the process to keep them off campus until ... the school district figured out what happened,” Jolliffe said.

Four of the boys chose to go to the alternative school, while three others never returned to school, according to a statement of undisputed facts in the case included in a legal brief filed by the school district’s legal team.

Lawyers representing the girl also have contended that the school district and campus police didn’t inform the girl and her mother that they could ask for a Title IX hearing.

A former school district Title IX coordinator has testified that he couldn’t remember conducting a single hearing between 2004 and 2010. Despite several complaints filed after student-on-student sexual assaults and other harassment incidents during the time frame, he couldn’t recall any Title IX complaints being filed, according to a brief filed by the girl’s legal team.

Friday’s hearing ended without the judge issuing a ruling.

DOCUMENTS SHED LIGHT

The investigation revealed that the girl was summoned from her classroom near the end of the school day Jan. 19, 2012, by another student.

A then 15-year-old ninth-grader said another teacher needed to speak with the girl, but minutes later she was in a restroom where several boys allegedly took turns forcing sex on her, according to a campus police report.

That night, the girl’s mother noticed an odor coming from her daughter’s clothes, but when she confronted her, the girl said nothing. The next day, after being confronted again by her mother, she said she’d been forced to have sex in the school restroom.

Her mother called the police, spurring the investigation.

According to the legal briefs:

A couple days later, two members of the school district’s crisis response team visited the girl at home and offered support services and assistance.

On Jan. 27, 2012, the girl’s mother notified the school district in writing that her daughter wouldn’t be returning to school and asked that she receive home-based educational services. She also requested that the girl’s brothers be allowed to transfer to another high school.

The girl continued to receive home services during the summer to help her catch up academically.

The following school year, her mother determined she was ready to return to a classroom setting and asked the school district to pay for her to attend Woodfield Academy, a small private school in Macon.

The district agreed and monitored the girl’s progress at the school. She graduated in 2014. Woodfield Academy’s website lists the school’s tuition cost for the 2015-2016 school year at $11,191, plus $500 in enrollment and application fees.

After the incident, the school district hired Safe Havens, a security consulting firm, to conduct a safety evaluation of the entire school system. Based on recommendations from Safe Havens, the district issued a safety directive prohibiting students from checking out another student from a classroom.

An additional campus police officer was assigned to Northeast High, locks were installed on restroom doors in the school’s Mark Smith Building and students were given teacher-supervised restroom breaks.

The district also launched a review of its policies regarding sexual harassment and student safety.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398 or find her on Twitter@awomackmacon.

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