Hundreds of young students say K-12 schools mishandled their sex assault cases

A Colorado high school did nothing to stop students who taunted and threatened a sexual assault victim for months, according to a lawsuit she filed against the district. Students even started a petition to allow the attacker to go to prom, and to block the victim from attending.

The case is one of at least 330 suits filed across the United States since the beginning of 2018 alleging that K-12 schools failed to protect students from sexual assault and harassment or mishandled incidents that came to light.


For months, her attacker’s friends tormented her. They called her a “crazy bitch” and a “porn star” on social media. One suggested that they show her “what rape actually is,” according to a lawsuit the Colorado student filed this year against her school district.

In the summer of 2017, the girl, a high school junior referred to as Jane Doe in court records, reported that she’d been sexually assaulted the previous year by a classmate, identified by the pseudonym John Smith. Smith later pleaded guilty to assault in juvenile court, and was placed on probation and required to participate in sex offender therapy. Yet throughout the 2017-18 academic year, his friends made Doe’s life miserable at Glenwood Springs High School, she says in her suit filed in the U.S. District Court of Colorado against the Roaring Fork School District.

Doe and her parents told administrators multiple times about the harassment — including that one of Smith’s friends threatened to strangle her — but the school did nothing to stop it, according to the civil complaint. Frustrated, Doe’s parents met with administrators in March 2018. When they emailed the next day to ask what steps the school had taken to protect Doe from harassment, according to the suit, an assistant principal wrote back, “the school has taken no actions.”

“From a parent’s standpoint, from a father’s standpoint, my blood curdles in anger,” Doe’s father told NBC News. “I have so much anger toward people who didn’t protect kids and follow through with consequences.”

Rob Stein, the district’s superintendent, said he could not discuss the case due to federal privacy law. He said that Doe’s complaint offers her “side of the story,” and that “the school district always investigates incidents of sexual harassment or assault according to district policy and state law.” The lawsuit is pending.

Doe’s complaint is one of at least 330 suits filed across the United States since the beginning of 2018 alleging that K-12 public and charter schools failed to protect students from sexual assault and harassment or mishandled incidents that came to light, according to an NBC News count based on court records.

The lawsuits include one from a high school student in Georgia who said she was expelled after a student allegedly forced her to perform oral sex; she said the school’s principal didn’t believe her account and said he thought she wanted to do it for the boy’s birthday. In another case, a Michigan district was accused of failing to investigate complaints that a fifth grade teacher was inappropriately touching boys; the teacher was later convicted of molesting seven children.

And in Texas, the parents of a 4-year-old girl who was allegedly sexually assaulted by a classmate at school said in a lawsuit that the district initially lied to them about what happened, did not tell them they needed to file a formal complaint to force the school to investigate, and did not look into the matter for several weeks.

The Georgia and the Michigan lawsuits are still pending; the Texas lawsuit was dismissed after a judge ruled that the school’s response had not subjected the student to additional abuse.

In recent years, colleges have faced intense public scrutiny around how they handle students’ reports of sexual violence, leading the Department of Education to unveil regulations this month that create new standards for how schools must respond under the gender equity law Title IX.

But K-12 schools are often left out of this conversation, even though students reported about 9,700 incidents of sexual assault, rape or attempted rape at elementary and secondary schools in the 2015-16 academic year, according to the most recent federal data.

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