ERA client wins in settlement with Sacramento School District; Spurs new policies for 49,000 students
September 24. 2019
For Immediate Release
Sep 24, 2019
Jess Eagle, Strategic Communications Manager
Equal Rights Advocates
SACRAMENTO — Sacramento City Unified School District settled a high-profile sexual assault lawsuit this week, agreeing to pay $400,000 to former student Virginia,* who was effectively suspended after McClatchy High School officials discovered she was raped by two schoolmates at an off-campus party in 2016.
Prompted by the lawsuit, SCUSD agreed to make significant district-wide changes to its policies on responding to and investigating reports of sexual assault and harassment. The District will also overhaul its controversial Sacramento Police school resource officer program — eliminating the constant presence of a uniformed officer in each school — a program that has long been opposed by civil rights advocates. These changes will impact 49,000 students who currently attend schools in the district.
The lawsuit, filed March 2018 by Equal Rights Advocates and Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams LLP, names SCUSD, four McClatchy High School officials, and a former school resource officer, in the mistreatment of student survivor Virginia after a classmate reported that Virginia was raped by two schoolmates at a 2016 party.
Virginia and her lawyers...can’t erase what happened to her at the hands of her classmates, or how she was treated by her school... But she chose to fight to make sure this didn't happen to other students who came after her, to make her school a safer place.— Maha Ibrahim, Staff Attorney
The suit alleges that when school officials found out about the rape, they effectively suspended Virginia, escorting her off campus and asking her to stay home from school for the rest of the spring 2016 semester while rumors died down. Meanwhile, the two students who raped her remained in school completely unaffected, with no attempt by the school to investigate the incident.
In March 2018, hundreds of students at McClatchy High School staged a walk-out protest after finding out about the school’s response to Virginia’s sexual assault. The student protesters said Virginia’s case was just one of many that school officials mishandled, noting that classmates who reported sexual violence were also often ignored and victim-blamed by school officials.
According to the lawsuit, school officials broke several federal and state laws in Virginia’s case, including Title IX, by denying her equal access to education; failing to inform her of her rights; discouraging her from taking legal action; failing to provide any psychological resources or counseling; failing to provide options for avoiding her assailants at school (other than kicking her out); not conducting a Title IX investigation; and failing to take effective action to stop the bullying, threats, and harassment she experienced when she returned to school. The school district also abdicated their legal duties by delegating investigatory responsibility to the Sacramento Police school resource officer, who had no training on Title IX or on the District’s policies regarding sexual assault.
For Virginia, the trauma of the rape was amplified when school officials interrogated, victim-blamed, and isolated her. Her grades dropped from mostly Bs to Ds and Fs. She had to quit her restaurant job, which helped support her family. She lost an unhealthy amount of weight, and her hygiene and sleep habits suffered noticeably. One month after the rape, Virginia attempted suicide and was involuntarily hospitalized for PTSD and depression. Her attempt came just days after school officials failed to provide a standard post-sexual assault suicide assessment.
Even if it might seem really scary and you feel like the whole world is against you, in the end, it ends up being beneficial not only for you, but for everybody else. And that’s the only way change is made.— Virginia, ERA client & student survivor
To help ensure this does not happen to other students, SCUSD has agreed to work with Equal Rights Advocates to draft, implement, and monitor progress of new policies for responding to reports of sexual assault and harassment. The policies are still being outlined, but they will include:
- Making it easier for students to report sexual assault or sexual harassment;
- Direction on how to fairly conduct investigations without re-traumatizing students;
- Ensuring adequate training, resources and staffing for the District’s Title IX office and counseling offices; and
- Ensuring that future student survivors are not retaliated against for reporting.
“Virginia and her lawyers couldn’t and can’t erase what happened to her at the hands of her classmates, or how she was treated by her school day-in and day-out for almost two years after the incident,” said Maha Ibrahim, Staff Attorney at Equal Rights Advocates, who represented Virginia for nearly 3 years. “But she chose to fight to make sure this didn’t happen to other students who came after her, to make her school a safer place. I was honored to be one of her lawyers.”
Virginia, who is a childhood cancer survivor, plans to use some of the $400,000 settlement reward for nursing school. Her time in the hospital as a child, and again after the rape, made her want to be a nurse.
“I want people to know that even if nobody believes you, you need to have the strength to let other people know,” Virginia said when asked what she though other survivors should know. “Even if it might seem really scary and you feel like the whole world is against you, in the end, it ends up being beneficial not only for you, but for everybody else. And that’s the only way change is made.”
* Last name not provided to protect the student’s identity.