Teen wins part of suit v. Forest Hills Schools

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A teen who sued Forest Hills Public Schools after reporting she had been sexually assaulted by a classmate has won at least part of her federal lawsuit against the district.

The teen was a student at a Forest Hills high school in 2010 when she said she was sexually assaulted by another student. She reported the incident to the district, which then launched an investigation. In her lawsuit filed in 2013, the teen claimed the district’s response was botched and that it turned its back on her in favor of protecting the suspect, who was an athlete.

In a ruling issued Tuesday, a federal judge said Forest Hills Public Schools failed to train staff members on how to appropriately respond to claims of sexual assault.

The judge found that “(Superintendent Dan) Behm admits that the District did not provide any training to its employees about how to respond to sexual assault complaints. (Anne) Edsenga, who was tasked as the Title IX coordinator, likewise did not have any significant training on how to handle sexual assault allegations.”

The judge wrote that the district did not act out of malice toward the victim, but instead didn’t seem to know what they were required to do under Federal Title IX regulations.

“Here, there is no indication that the school administrators acted with bias or ill-will, but rather their testimony shows that they were acting as they thought was reasonable. Thus, their shortcomings appear to be … the result of inadequate training; if they had known about the guidance from the Department of Education on how to thoroughly handle complaints of harassment, there is no indication that the Defendants would not have substantially followed those guidelines,” the judge wrote.

In the same ruling, the judge dismissed a claim of retaliation, saying there is not evidence that the school district retaliated against the victim because she reported the sexual assault to police. The judge also dismissed individual claims against Superintendent Daniel Behm, Principal Terry Urquhart, and Assistant Superintendent and Title IX Coordinator Anne Edsenga.

Two counts remain unsettled in the lawsuit. The victim claims the district responded with indifference in its investigation and handling of her complaint of sexual assault. While individual administrators can’t be sued for those alleged violations, the district itself can be sued.

The victim, identified as Jane Doe, was a sophomore at Forest Hills Central High School in November 2010. She claims a classmate, identified as MM in the lawsuit, sexually assaulted her in a band room. The victim reported the abuse to the district, which launched an investigation but couldn’t substantiate the allegations. The district’s investigation was suspended once police got involved.

During the months-long investigation, the victim complained of harassment by the suspect and other students, but says school administrators only told the suspect to leave the victim alone and never took further action.

Initially, the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office declined to charge the suspect, but later reversed that decision when another student made similar allegations. The suspect was eventually charged with two counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct. He later pleaded guilty to a single count of misdemeanor assault and was sentenced to probation and had to attend Kent County’s Adolescent Sexual Offender Treatment Program.

Only after his conviction, more than six months after the assault, did the district punish the suspect. He was suspended from the basketball team for a year and was given a five-day suspension from school.

The district has defended the investigation, saying it told the victim and her parents to report any problems, asked staff to be on the lookout for any problems and made other attempts to make the victim feel more comfortable in school.

The district says police told them not to conduct their own investigation at the same time as police.

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