Appeals court: Court erred in tossing out Sparkman Middle School rape bait lawsuit

Appeals court: Court erred in tossing out Sparkman Middle School rape bait lawsuit

(WAFF) - The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling saying a federal court judge erred when ruling in favor of the Madison County School Board and against a former Sparkman Middle School student who said she was used as bait to catch another student who behaved inappropriately with classmates.

In 2010, a 14-year-old girl said she was raped by a student in a Sparkman Middle School bathroom. A lawsuit alleged that Sparkman Middle School teacher's aide June Simpson influenced the 14-year-old girl by telling her to follow a boy into the bathroom, and that the girl would be safe.

The lawsuit said the boy had been propositioning girls to have sex with him at school, but that teachers were aware of it and were watching the boy closely. The lawsuit also says Simpson coerced the girl into meeting the boy so he could be caught in the act.

READ MORE: Student sues Madison County Schools over rape allegations

The lawsuit says Simpson told the girl, "Don't do anything. Just get him to meet you and we'll catch him." It goes on to say that Simpson watched security cameras, did not see the boy or girl go into the bathroom, and went back to her classroom.

Ultimately, the lawsuit says the girl was raped and sexually assaulted by the defendant in the school's sixth-grade bathroom.

Court documents say the victim ultimately dropped out of school and moved to another state. The documents go on to say that she never received any counseling to deal with trauma resulting from the rape.

According to the appeals court's ruling, the assailant was suspended for five days. A note to his guardian indicated the assailant was suspended for "inappropriate touching." No charges were ever filed against the assailant by the Madison County District Attorney's Office

The appeals court ruling now clears the way for the victim to move forward with her lawsuit against Madison County School Board members and employees. The case returns to the U.S. District Court.

The Court of Appeals affirmed that the rape-bait scheme was not a direct consequence of the school's "catch in the act" policy.

The appeals court then reversed the district court's decision to throw out the victim's claims that Principal Ronnie Blair violated the victim's civil rights claim.

"No reasonable official in Blair's position would have believed doing nothing to reform Sparkman's sexual harassment policy was lawful in light of the clearly established principle that deliberate indifference to sexual harassment is an equal protection violation," ruled the appeals court.

The appeals court said that Blair could not be held liable for negligence or wantonness because he is entitled to state-agent immunity. The court said the victim did not show show any exceptions to Alabama's state-agent immunity requirements. Meanwhile, the court said that Dunaway would not be granted state-agent immunity because there is a genuine dispute that she acted beyond her authority by failing to report the alleged attacker's sexual harassment to Blair.

Documents quote Blair as saying he would not change any policies because, "we did as good a job as you could do under the circumstances."

The court also said Jeanne Dunaway, who was assistant principal at Sparkman at the time, approved the sting operation. The court said she should not be granted immunity from being sued because "every objectively reasonable government official facing the circumstances would have known the plan to use [the victim] as rape bait violated the Equal Protection Clause."

According to court documents, Dunaway said she doesn't believe a rape can occur unless prosecutors bring criminal charges against the alleged rapist. Documents also say Dunaway believes the victim's decision to enter the bathroom makes the attacker's conduct "different" because, in her mind, he was not "dragging a cave woman by the hair and pulling her into your lair, as opposed to someone saying 'sure, I'll go with you.'"

Finally, the court said teacher's aide June Simpson could be sued for causing extreme emotional distress because she should have known that such distress was likely to result from the sting operation, and using the victim as rape-bait was extreme and outrageous.

A Madison County Schools spokesperson said attorneys have advised them not to comment on pending litigation.

The Madison County school board defended their actions in September 2014. School board attorney Mark Boardman called the allegations at the center of the attack an "unfortunate situation."

Boardman said student safety is the board's first priority and that the district is not to blame for what happened inside the Sparkman Middle School bathroom in 2010. The Madison County School Board's attorney said the assistant principal, Jeanne Dunaway, had no idea about the plan. He said the only person involved in the plan was former teacher's aide June Simpson, who they said acted on her own and was unauthorized to do so, and which they called a "misguided attempt to help the student."

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