‘It’s Like the Wild West’: Sexual Assault Victims Struggle in K-12 Schools

During a disciplinary hearing, the girl was cross-examined by the accused student’s lawyer, who had to be told to “tone it down.” A lawyer for the school district also questioned the girl, concluding that he believed the encounter was consensual because she “did not scream louder and louder as this was going on.” Found to have violated the sexual misconduct policy, the girl was suspended — twice.

A county spokeswoman referred to the district’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, in which it argued the school district did not violate Title IX because it investigated and determined the sex was consensual.

In another case, parents are suing the Washington Public Schools in Oklahoma, where they say their middle-school son had been assaulted three times over 18 months by his male peers, who shoved their fingers in his rectum in a classroom and locker room. Administrators called it “horseplay” but admitted they would have called the police if the same action had been done to a girl. When the parents asked the administrators to take action, the principal, who was also the athletic director, asked, “What do you want me to do — hold his hand?”

County officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Jesse Binnall, a lawyer representing an accused student in a Title IX lawsuit against Fairfax County Schools in Virginia, said that there are even fewer due process protections at the K-12 level than in college, but school disciplinary decisions are more consequential for younger students.

“This isn’t something you learn from and move on; this is almost worse than a felony conviction,” he said. “If you’re going to put something on somebody’s record, something that’s going to haunt them for the rest of their lives, you’d better be sure.”

In Mr. Binnall’s suit, an 18-year-old male student says the school district violated his rights when he was suspended after a girl accused him of hitting her buttocks. The suit said the student had little notice to prepare a defense in a disciplinary hearing and was not able to question the accuser or the witnesses. The suit also contends that school officials ignored key evidence, and even though video evidence exonerated him and a witness recanted, they did not waive their decision.

Officials in Fairfax County Schools, which is facing at least one other Title IX lawsuit, declined to comment on pending litigation. In 2014, the district settled an investigation with the Office for Civil Rights, which required it to improve its Title IX process. A spokesman said the district was complying with its federal agreement and federal laws and was “committed to continually improving our practices related to preventing and responding to sex discrimination within our schools.”

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