A woman is suing a Massachusetts school district and its administrators for failing to protect her against two classmates who she said sexually assaulted her when she was a sophomore in high school.
The woman, now 19, was 15 when she said she was raped and sexually assaulted by two male classmates during a sleepover at her friend’s house.
The woman’s federal lawsuit — filed on Friday in Massachusetts and provided first to BuzzFeed News — alleges that administrators at Newburyport High School violated school policies as well as Title IX, the gender equity law, after she reported the rape and subsequent harassment she experienced.
The woman told BuzzFeed News she is filing the lawsuit now, four years later, because “all I can think about most nights before I go to sleep is that there’s another 15-year-old girl going through the same thing.”
All of the information in this article — unless otherwise noted — comes from the lawsuit.
In a statement on Friday, the superintendent of Newburyport Public Schools said the district "has not been presented with a lawsuit and will not comment on a lawsuit it has not seen."
"Please note that Newburyport Public School is unwavering in its commitment to maintaining a safe and supportive environment for all students," the statement said. "To allege otherwise is wrong and does not accurately reflect the Newburyport school community."
The woman, who has asked to remain anonymous and is identified as Jane Roe in the lawsuit, was a sophomore when she had a sleepover at her friend’s house in November 2013.
Her friend’s brother and his friend were also at the house and allegedly snuck out around 11 p.m. to buy marijuana. Once they returned, she said the two men gave her a pipe to smoke.
The woman said she told them it was her first time smoking weed and that she wanted to stop after taking a few hits — but her friend’s brother insisted she smoke more so she “would feel it.” Soon after, she said she felt completely incapacitated.
She lied down in her friend’s bedroom when she said the brother entered, got on top of her, and raped her. When he finished, she said the brother’s friend came into the bedroom and sexually assaulted her as well.
The next day at school, she wanted to meet with the school psychologist, but the nurse told her “everyone was busy,” according to the suit. She later met with the school’s guidance counselor and told him that she believed the two men forced her to smoke to the point of incapacitation, and that “something bad happened.”
The following day, in a meeting with the guidance counselor; the principal, Mike Parent; and the associate principal, Mike Testa, the woman’s mother told the school administrators that her daughter had been raped, according to the suit.
“You didn’t have to tell us that, you know,” Testa told the woman and her parents as he threw his hands in the air and swiveled in his chair in frustration, according to the suit.
The meeting ended with the school officials agreeing to discuss a safety plan, the suit said, including establishing a space within the school where the woman could go if she felt in fear or stress stemming from the rape.
Instead, the lawsuit says, the school failed to do that, adding that the school officials didn't protect the woman from repeated harassment she faced from her alleged assailants, didn't stagger their schedules so they wouldn’t cross paths in the hallways, didn't inform her of any of her rights under Title IX, and failed to enforce a court-issued harassment prevention order.
Testa and Parent did not immediately return requests for comment.
“I did everything I was supposed to do,” the woman told BuzzFeed News of her reporting the alleged assault to the school. “I spent my whole life believing that these institutions were supposed to help me. I told them the most horrible thing that’s ever happened to me and the way they responded was shocking. It was such a betrayal.”
According to the suit, the school had implemented staggered schedules so the woman and the alleged perpetrators wouldn't see each other in the hallways, but officials failed to enforce it. The woman frequently saw her alleged assailants in the hallways, in the school cafeteria, and in other public spaces at the school.
In the weeks following the alleged rape the woman said she was afraid to be at school.
She reported to Testa and Parent that she felt threatened and harassed by the two alleged perpetrators, especially her friend’s brother, who had allegedly raped her. She said he would stare at her and stand very close to her in school. She also reported that stress caused her to get physically ill, leading her to frequently visit the nurse’s office, where she would throw up.
After the woman filed a police report — about 10 days after the alleged assaults — she told the school officials that she feared her friend’s brother would retaliate against her. The lawsuit states that the school did not take any measures to protect her on campus.
When her mother told Testa that her daughter was considering getting a restraining order and that there may be other Title IX considerations, Testa, according to the suit, responded by asking, “What does Title IX have to do with this?”
The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights outlined requirements for educational institutions to be in compliance with Title IX in a 2011 guidance document known as the Dear Colleague Letter.
Investigating complaints of student-on-student assault — even if it occurs off school grounds — preventing retaliation from the accused, and separating the complainant and alleged perpetrator, are all requirements outlined in the Dear Colleague Letter.
According to the letter, the school has a responsibility to minimize the burden on the complainant by not removing them from classes while allowing the alleged perpetrator to remain.
Testa and Parent suggested setting up a room where the woman could get her schoolwork done by herself, away from peers, but she rejected the offer, saying she was a good student, liked her teachers, and did not want to be removed from classes.
“This case is a perfect example of how not to respond to a student who has reported that she has been violently sexually assaulted by two fellow students,” attorney Alex Zalkin said. “The lack of compassion, and complete indifference to [my client’s] constant reports that she was being harassed on campus by her assailants is the exact hostile environment that Title IX seeks to eliminate.”
The suit said a juvenile court judge issued a permanent harassment prevention order — usually known as a restraining order — for her friend’s brother in December, saying he couldn't come within 50 feet of her.
The woman's lawyer told BuzzFeed News he didn't have a copy of the police report. The courthouse required that BuzzFeed News fax a request for the order. And the police department refused to give BuzzFeed News the report, saying the woman was a minor at the time of the alleged incident.
After another incident in which the woman reported feeling threatened and harassed by one of the alleged assailants in a school hallway, Testa met with the woman and, according to the suit, repeatedly asked her “What did [he] do to you?” adding that the harassment she felt in the hallway was not a violation, “it’s just incidental contact.”
The girl was so frustrated and upset after the meeting, she stormed out of the office and walked home in the winter with no coat on.
A few days later, the mother called the school to tell Testa and Parent that her daughter’s health was deteriorating as a result of the rape, and to ask why they had not staggered her daughter’s and the man’s schedules, so they wouldn't cross paths in the hallways between classes, pursuant to the restraining order.
Parent said, according to the suit, that doing that “singles [him] out,” and asked “what if it gets around why [he] has these restrictions? I can’t stop people from talking.”
The woman ultimately decided to leave the school and was forced to transfer to a private school in Boston — a two-hour round-trip commute away by train — because the public schools in her area were not accepting students from outside the district.
Newburyport school officials “took away” the fun, carefree high school experience every 15-year-old should have, the woman told BuzzFeed News.
“I had a part of my life taken away from me,” she said. “They were supposed to facilitate me being a high schooler, me getting to go to a normal prom, or out to dances. As a 15-year-old I was supposed to have stupid teenage drama but I never got that. It’s just sad.”
Mary Ann Georgantopoulos is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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