WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court ruled a woman who was sexually harassed while on a band trip out of state can move forward with a new trial against the Fairfax County School Board.
Court documents filed Wednesday state "Jane Doe" can retry her Title IX case, which was initially denied by the district court.
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The case stems from an incident in 2017, when Doe was on a trip with the Oakton High School's band to Indianapolis.
Doe was 16 years old when an older male bandmate sat next to her on the bus ride, and sexually assaulted her under a blanket as she was "frozen in fear the whole time."
She sued Fairfax County Public Schools claiming it didn’t take appropriate action and the District failed to keep critical documents tied to her claim.
In discovery an email was found where a female assistant principal at the time, who was on the band trip, asked the man who was principal then “how many inches” it would snow in Oakton while she was gone.
The principal said, “How many inches under the blanket or on the ground?”
The other student was never convicted of a crime.
The initial decision in her case ended with a jury ruling that the school board did not have any knowledge of the incident.
Attorneys for the victim argued the district court "erred by misconstruing what it means for a school to have actual notice" or information of alleged harassment in Title IX cases.
"The trial testimony was that there were at least three student statements that were not turned over to us and there were documents created that were part of the school's tracking system of sexual complaints that the District also did not have available,” adds Linda Correia, who represents the victim.
"We agree," the appeals court states, "we hold that a school’s receipt of a report that can objectively be taken to allege sexual harassment is sufficient to establish actual notice or knowledge under Title IX—regardless of whether school officials subjectively understood."
We further conclude that under this standard, no evidence in the record supports the jury’s conclusion that the School Board lacked actual notice of Smith’s alleged sexual harassment of Doe. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for a new trial.
In a statement provided by her attorney, Doe said she is grateful to have another trial, and that the 4th circuit "recognized Fairfax's legal arguments would lead to 'absurd results' for student survivors like me."
It means a lot to me that the appeals court's strong opinion will protect other survivors. Every student deserves to feel safe in school.
Correia tells 7News "this ruling is totally common sense."
"The court held that the school's receipt of a report of sexual harassment, of alleged sexual harassment, was sufficient to show actual notice or actual knowledge by the school for purposes of Title IX and the court found further that to find otherwise would lead to absurd results,” Correia said.
7News reached out to the Fairfax County School board for comment on the ruling, a statement provided reads "FCPS respects the court’s decision. We have seen today’s opinions and are reviewing them."
The District does have the option to appeal Wednesday’s decision to the full 4th U.S. Circuit Court or the U.S. Supreme Court.
In an interview with 7News in June of 2019, Correia said school officials failed to keep critical documents tied to the claim when Virginia law required the records to be kept for at least three years.
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At the time, Fairfax County Public Schools told 7News:
“The suggestion that FCPS intentionally destroyed documents is false. FCPS has produced more than 15,000 pages in this case. Some paper documents were inadvertently lost years ago, well before we had notice of the lawsuit.”