GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - The federal government has concluded that the Forest Hills School District failed to properly investigate a sexual assault case involving a student athlete.
The Department of Education's Civil Rights Office investigated the complaint made by the parents of an unnamed female student that their daughter was discriminated against on the basis of sex because of the district's response to the assault. The parents brought the complaint under Title IX, which is known for providing equal athletic opportunities for young women but which covers all kinds of gender discrimination.
The initial incident occurred in November 2010 and involved inappropriate touching in a band room at Forest Hills Central High School. A second female student complained about a similar incident involving the same athlete a couple weeks later but chose not to press a complaint.
The school principal at that time -- who has since left the district -- reportedly told the DOE that a Kent County Sheriff's Department investigator asked him to stop the school investigation pending the criminal probe. District officials told the DOE they did not have enough proof to determine if sexual harassment had happened or a school rule had been broken and were waiting for evidence from the police investigation.
Only after the athlete, who was originally charged with fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct, was allowed to plead guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery did the district take any disciplinary action.
Superintendent Dan Behm said he can't say what that was but said such cases usually involve temporary suspension.
The criminal plea got the student-athlete probation.
The US Department of Education's investigation found the district was obligated under Title IX to do more.
"The District did not thoroughly or promptly investigate either allegation of sexual harassment," the investigation said. Additionally, it said the high school principal contended he couldn't get to the bottom of the conflicting stories but said he failed to keep notes of interviews, did not review a video showing the students in a hallway around the time of the incident to try to determine the credibility of their conflicting stories and did not give the girl an opportunity to present physical evidence.
In an interview with 24 Hour News 8, Superintendent Behm agreed that failing to keep notes did appear a bit lax. He said principals need to be investigators as well as educators sometimes and "we need to make sure all of our administrative staff understands what that means and what sound investigations look like."
It took eight months for the criminal case to conclude and the school district to act.
During that time, according to the girls parents, other students concluded that she was lying and started harassing her.
The DOE's Office of Civil Rights also concluded "the District did not investigate or respond to most of the subsequent complaints made by the parents regarding their allegations of ongoing harassment and retaliation" against their daughter by other students, including the suspect. It said the district did take some "interim steps" but they were "not adequate to prevent harassment from re-occurring."
The girl complained a group of male students chanted "go home" when she showed up at a basketball game. She says the suspect pushed other students into her path in school hallways and that other students posted harassing comments on a web site.
The DOE report said the district "did not follow its policy regarding electronically transmitted forms of harassment" because it told the girl's parents there was nothing it could do since the online harassment did not occur on school property.
The DOE says the policy allows the district to take action against off-campus electronic harassment if it hampers the student's ability to "participate or benefit from the district's program."
The district and the DOE have reached an agreement to resolve the complaint in which the school system says it will take steps to eliminate any further harassment of the victim, and pay for her outside counseling and transportation costs while she attended another school.
The agreement also pledges the district will revise procedures and train staff to prevent further incidents.
Behm said, "We need to be clear. We need to do a better job in understanding what situations in a school trigger even Title IX elements where...we have to do a Title IX investigation versus just a standard investigation."
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