(Updated on 1/14/2022 at 4:30 p.m.) The Fairfax County School Board has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up a former student’s sexual assault lawsuit, a move that could reshape how the federal law against sexual violence in schools is interpreted.
A petition filed by the school board on Dec. 30 argues that public school systems can’t be held liable for sexual harassment and assault unless officials knew an assault took place and could have prevented it.
The lawsuit was initiated in May 2018 by a former Oakton High School student, identified as Jane Doe, who says Fairfax County Public Schools mishandled her report of being sexually assaulted by another student on a school band trip in 2017.
The school board is now seeking to reverse an appeals court’s order of a new trial in the case.
“Funding recipients are rightly held liable when their own conduct intentionally causes harassment,” the petition says. “But Title IX liability rightfully does not, under this Court’s precedents, extend to situations where a recipient does not actually know of harassment or when its actions cause no harassment.”
Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in public education programs and activities. Doe’s lawsuit argues that FCPS violated the law by ignoring reports of her assault, discouraging her from taking legal action, and failing to ensure her safety.
A U.S. District Court jury found in August 2019 that a sexual assault took place and harmed Doe’s educational experience, but the school board couldn’t be held liable under Title IX, because officials didn’t have “actual knowledge” that the assault had occurred.
Jury members’ reported confusion over the term “actual knowledge” — whether school officials need direct evidence of an assault or just a report of one — led Public Justice, the nonprofit representing Jane Doe, to appeal the case to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
A three-judge panel ruled in June that a sexual assault report meets the legal standard and ordered a retrial.
However, FCPS asked the appeals court to stay its order for a new trial in September, signaling that it planned to petition the Supreme Court.
In a statement to FFXnow, FCPS maintained that the school board “could not have foreseen the assault, did not cause it, and could not have prevented it”:
Fairfax County Public Schools is committed to upholding Title IX and firmly believes that every student deserves an education free from harassment or discrimination. The decision to pursue this legal avenue has nothing to do with challenging this critical civil rights law.
The question in this case is only about whether Congress intended America’s public schools, and the teachers that work in them, to be held financially responsible for student-on-student misconduct that they had no way to foresee and did not cause. We believe the law should be applied the same way nationwide, and only the Supreme Court has the power to restore that uniformity.
To fail to challenge the Fourth Circuit’s ruling would be to let down public school educators the length and breadth of the U.S., and especially in Virginia, during a time when they need support more than ever. In addition, to roll over in the face of costly and unfair lawsuits would be an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars and would set a worrying precedent for school divisions facing similar lawsuits now and in the future.
However, Public Justice says the school board’s position is at odds with its claims to support students’ safety and civil rights, essentially suggesting that schools can only be held liable for sexual violence if it reoccurs.
“[FCPS] has now asked the Supreme Court to gut crucial protections for Jane Doe, for Fairfax students, and for young survivors across the country, pushing a misinterpretation of Title IX that the U.S. Department of Justice has called ‘absurd,'” Public Justice staff attorney Alexandra Brodsky said by email. “We are confident, though, that the Court will deny the cert petition and Jane will have the chance to be heard by a jury.”
Brodsky added that Doe isn’t seeking to hold FCPS responsible for the assault itself, but rather, for how it responded to her report.
Public Justice has not filed a response to the school board’s petition yet. The Supreme Court docket shows that a motion to extend the deadline for a response to April 8 was granted on Tuesday (Jan. 11).
Shatter the Silence Fairfax County Public Schools, a nonprofit that says it was founded by survivors, parents, and FCPS students, has launched a petition demanding that the school board drop its appeal.
“We the citizens demand that FCPS withdraw the baseless appeal in Doe v. Fairfax County School Board and appropriately respond to sexual assault in school,” the petition says. “Since FCPS continues its culture of cover-up and indifference, we ask the Virginia Attorney General and the Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation into FCPS and bring accountability once and for all.”
Photo via Geoff Livingston/Flickr
A woman alleges that Fairfax County police not only benefited from a sex trafficking ring that victimized her for years but also harmed efforts trying to stop it.
She is suing several former Fairfax County officers, including former Chief Ed Roessler, as well as the county itself. The lawsuit claims the woman — identified as a mother with the pseudonym Jane Doe — was forced to have sex with multiple men per day as part of a trafficking operation exposed in 2018 by an FBI investigation.
“Defendants also conspired to cover up the fact that Fairfax County police officers were actively participating in, and benefiting sexually if not financially from, the work of a local sex trafficking ring,” the lawsuit said.
The Fairfax County Police Department directed FFXnow to the county’s public affairs office, which declined to comment.
The suit alleged that two supervisory officers “actively facilitated” a sex trafficking ring by “providing it with protection intended to prevent discovery of, and appropriate law enforcement intervention into.”
The woman’s attorneys filed a 19-page amended complaint in federal court Thursday (Dec. 16), expanding on an initial nine-page complaint filed in October. The updated document names the officers allegedly involved and alleges that the FCPD damaged a county detective’s work and dismissed his report involving police’s actions.
The suit relates to a prostitution ring run by Hazel Marie Sanchez Cerdas, who brought multiple women from Costa Rica to the U.S. and forced them into commercial sex work in Fairfax County and across the country. Cerdas pleaded guilty to felony racketeering and was sentenced to 30 months in prison in August 2019, with credit for time served.
According to the amended complaint, a friend connected the woman with Sanchez Cerdas, who coordinated her travel in 2010 from Costa Rica. The woman believed she would work as a nanny, housekeeper, or social escort, going on dates to business dinners and events with wealthy men.
Under the belief that she was taking a two-week trip, the woman met Sanchez Cerdas in a Fairfax apartment in 2010. Sanchez Cerdas took her travel documents and threatened her family if she didn’t work as a prostitute, according to the lawsuit.
She was allowed to leave for certain time periods, but under the threat that her family could be harmed if she didn’t return. She escaped in 2015.
Detective Says Police Extorted Sex
A former detective for the county, William Woolf, worked in the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force, but the FCPD repeatedly interfered with and jeopardized his work, according to the lawsuit.
When he tried to change his supervisor and report issues to a captain, he received no support from the department, according to the amended complaint.
“Det. Woolf said that trafficking victims, who trusted him, had reported to him that FCPD police officers were extorting sex from the trafficking enterprises they were also protecting,” the lawsuit said.
According to the complaint, superiors disparagingly called Woolf a social worker, and a lieutenant told him to “think about” his kids and not talk about human trafficking. The department later reassigned him to its Major Crimes Division, after which “trafficking cases stopped receiving the manpower and allocation of resources that had earlier supported this work.”
“Police officials regularly derided the notion that trafficked women were victims, insisting instead that they were simply prostitutes willingly engaged in unlawful commercial activity,” the suit said.
The suit also alleges that police tipped Sanchez Cerdas off to sting operations. The FBI investigated at least two officers for corruption but ultimately referred the matter to the FCPD for follow-up, according to the lawsuit.
Fairfax County Public Schools has asked a federal appeals court to postpone an ordered retrial of a former Oakton High School student’s sexual assault lawsuit, setting up a possible escalation of the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The school system plans to file a petition for a writ of certiorari requesting that the Supreme Court take up the case, according to Public Justice, the nonprofit legal organization that represents the student, who has only been identified as Jane Doe.
Public Justice told FFXnow that it learned about those intentions Monday morning (Sept. 20), though it’s still holding out hope that the Fairfax County School Board will opt not to file the petition.
The law firm warns that, if FCPS files a petition and the appeal is accepted, it could set the stage for a reevaluation of Title IX protections against gender discrimination, which have traditionally been used to address school-based sexual violence, by the same court that allowed Texas to essentially ban abortions earlier this month.
“Fairfax would be asking them to severely undermine students’ civil rights,” Public Justice staff attorney Alexandra Brodsky, the plaintiff’s counsel, said. “I think there’s a real question for Fairfax families whether they want the legacy of Fairfax schools to be undermining equality and safety for students.”
Filed in May 2018, the lawsuit argues that FCPS violated Doe’s Title IX rights by failing to ensure her safety and provide support after she reported that an older, male student sexually assaulted her when they were on a bus during the five-day school band trip.
The school board’s Sept. 9 regular meeting agenda includes a closed session to consult with legal counsel about the case, known as “Jane Doe v. Fairfax County School Board et al.”
FCPS confirmed that it has requested the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to stay its June 16 ruling ordering a new trial in Doe’s lawsuit over school officials’ response to her report of being sexually assaulted by a fellow student during a band trip in 2017.
With one judge dissenting, the three-person panel reversed a U.S. District Court jury’s verdict in favor of FCPS, arguing that the lower court had failed to accurately define for the jury the legal standard to determine if the school system had “actual knowledge” of the reported assault.
“As the divergent opinions of the Fourth Circuit show, the issues in this case could have nationwide and potentially far-reaching implications,” FCPS spokesperson Julie Moult said in a statement. “For that reason, we have asked the court to stay or suspend the effective date of its ruling, pending further review.”
FCPS said it had no further comment at this time, including on whether it plans to petition the Supreme Court. Read More