Gwinnett schools lose bid to dismiss suit over sex assault case

A federal court has denied Gwinnett County Public Schools’ motion to dismiss a lawsuit claiming that its handling of a 2015 sexual assault complaint violated a female student’s civil rights.

Gwinnett officials said they can’t comment on active lawsuits. But the school district has denied any wrongdoing.

“This ruling has a tremendous impact,” said Adele Kimmel, the student’s attorney. “This sends a message to Gwinnett County that they can’t sweep sexual assault cases like this under the rug.”

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On Feb. 5, 2015, a sophomore at Peachtree Ridge High School reported that a male student had forced her to perform oral sex the day before. The male student said the sexual encounter was consensual, and both were suspended for violating school policy. After returning to school, the girl says she was harassed and bullied by students and forced to attend classes with the boy. She said she had suicidal thoughts, insomnia and PTSD.

Her lawsuit says she complained to school officials about the treatment by classmates but the administration did nothing. She eventually withdrew from Peachtree Ridge and enrolled in the district’s online campus. She says two of the classes she’d been taking weren’t offered online and she missed the in-person contact with teachers and peers. Her family eventually moved out of Gwinnett County so she could attend another school in person.

The civil lawsuit, filed in November 2018, argues that the school district’s deliberate inaction about her complaints about the assault, violence and subsequent harassment was a violation of Title IX. That provision of federal law says nobody may be subjected to discrimination the basis of sex in any education program receiving federal financial assistance.

The suit also contends that school district staff retaliated against her in violation of Title IX by twice suspending her from school, openly gossiping about her to other teachers, giving her failing grades, marring her educational record and refusing to provide her with meaningful accommodations. The girl also asserts that there was no staff member adequately trained in Title IX, harassment and sexual assault.

In denying the motion to dismiss the suit, the U.S. District Court in Atlanta found that both students being suspended wasn’t central to the girl’s claim that she was treated unfairly. The court also ruled that consent in the alleged assault was not a factor in whether she had violated school policy.

“I just feel betrayed by the school … What about other girls that go to (Peachtree Ridge)?” the girl said of the experience. “This is a bad example. I don’t want any girls to have to go through this, ever.”

She said she’s concerned that other girls who face sexual assault won’t report it.

“When people find out about this and girls do get sexually assaulted, they’re not going to want to come forward and tell someone, because they’re going to be scared they’re going to get suspended and they have to go through all of this.”