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School District Liable for Student’s Sexual Abuse

NASHVILLE (CN) - A Tennessee school board must compensate the parents of three minors who were sexually abused by another student at one of the district's elementary schools, a federal judge ruled.

The parents of the students, identified only as M.B. and B.E. in court documents, sued Robertson County and its school board of education on February 25, 2013, claiming the defendants followed a policy of not reporting sexual assaults that occurred within their schools, and failed to take any steps to immediately remove the alleged assailant from class or to protect the injured children.

"The Robertson County Board of Education has actual knowledge of a significant danger of sexual molestation at East Robertson Elementary School at least in the fall of 2011," the plaintiffs said. "Despite actual knowledge, the perpetrators of sexual batteries have been left in the company of other children including among multiple victims."

They continued, "The county and its school system provide no training for their teachers and staff to deal with sexual contact among their pupils. They also offer no counseling specific to the needs of children who act out sexually or their victims whom they isolate, transfer and stigmatize."

According to the parents, their children started the school year without any problems, but after a few weeks, their demeanor changed dramatically, and they began not only to resist going to school, but going anywhere without their teacher once they got there.

When one of the parents took steps to investigate whether something "inappropriate" had happened while her child was at school, she says she met resistance from both her daughter's teacher and the board's human resources officer, who both said enough to suggest something had happened at the school, but that "they had to protect the privacy of another child," the complaint says.

The parents contended that M.L., the alleged perpetrator of sex abuse against their children, "had a history of inappropriate touching while in the Robertson County school system."

According to the ruling, by U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell, M.L. was admitted to a psychiatric hospital twice in 2012 for sexually inappropriate behavior, and was suspended for most of second grade year for inappropriately touching a female student.

But, the plaintiff parents said their children's trauma continued unabated.

M.B. had a panic attack in the spring of 2012 and told his mother that M.L. "had done bad things" to him. M.B.'s parents placed him in counseling and in a private school.

B.E. is a female student who said that M.L. sexually assaulted her in the computer lab in second grade. The teacher was out of the room at the time, and when she came back she made both students apologize to the class, according to the ruling.

"The computer lab teacher reported that she was gone from the room 60 to 90 seconds and when she returned, a student told her that M.L. had tried to lick B.E.'s private parts. The teacher made M.L. and B.E. apologize to each other and to the entire class," the ruling states. "Then she told the students, including the child who reported it, to 'drop it.' B.E. stated that the teacher told the students not to talk about it or they would get in trouble."

The computer lab incident allegedly occurred after M.L. was placed on a "safety plan" that required he be monitored at all times. B.E.'s parents moved her to a new school in a different county in January 2013.

W.J. is the alleged perpetrator of sexual abuse against the third child at the center of the lawsuit, J.A., and he was also the victim of abuse by M.L. J.A.'s mother testified that W.J. sexually harassed the victim in first and second grade. His parents transferred him to a new school in Robertson County.

The school district didn't tell parents about M.L.'s safety plan and the elementary school's vice principal didn't tell M.B.'s mother why she should question him about anything inappropriate happening at school, instead saying "it's really no big deal," the ruling states.

Judge Campbell ruled Friday that the school district is liable to the plaintiffs for deliberate indifference. Evidence at the no-jury trial "demonstrated a serious lack of sensitivity" to peer-on-peer sexual harassment and inappropriate touching, specifically in regards to M.L. and W.J., he ruled.

"Despite minimizing by the director of schools and the teachers, the actions of these two boys were sexual, severe, pervasive and objectively unreasonable," Campbell wrote.

The school district is also liable for failure to train its employees about ways to recognize, report and deal with sexual harassment, the judge ruled.

"Defendant recognized the dangers of sexual abuse to children, but it did not train its teachers to look for, avoid or report these dangers," Campbell wrote. "For example, there was no training about signs to look for, no training about reporting sexual abuse, not training about notifying parents, no training about how to interview the children, no training about implementing a safety plan, and no training about changing interventions which did not work."

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