This story has been updated.
In June of last year, a freshman at Roosevelt High School in Northwest Washington reported to Principal Aqueelha James that she had been sexually assaulted by another student in a school bathroom.
James at first expressed concern over the accusation, according to an audio recording of the conversation shared with The Washington Post and quoted in a newly filed civil rights lawsuit against the District.
“I’m here to support and be of assistance,” James told the girl and her mother. The principal promised a swift and thorough investigation. “I don’t like the idea that your daughter has been assaulted sexually,” James said. “It is a crime.”
But after the distraught girl abruptly left the conference room where she was meeting with James, followed by her mother, the principal took a different tone with other school officials who were present.
She said that she was “sick of her and her mom” and that she planned to try to “embarrass her ass.” She ridiculed the clothes the girl was wearing.
“This is a bunch of bulls---,” James said.
The recording, made by the girl’s mother on her cellphone, is the linchpin of a lawsuit against James and the D.C. government in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The lawsuit asserts that James and other school system officials failed to adequately investigate the sexual assault allegations, as required by federal law, and that James defamed the girl by impugning her credibility to police officers.
The Washington Post does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault without their consent and is not naming the girl or her mother. The federal lawsuit, which seeks at least $5 million in actual and punitive damages, was filed under a pseudonym.
The girl’s mother recorded the meeting of James and other school officials, her attorney said, and unintentionally left the phone in the conference room when she went to comfort her daughter.
D.C. Public Schools released a statement Wednesday saying that an internal investigation had been conducted into James’s handling of the sexual assault allegation. Schools officials refused to disclose the findings.
“DCPS does not tolerate sexual misconduct or harassment in our schools. We take the safety and security of all of our students seriously, and while we cannot discuss the specifics of personnel matters, when the issue at Roosevelt was brought to our attention we launched an investigation and took action,” the statement said.
On Thursday morning, LaToya Foster, a spokeswoman for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), said that after reviewing the recording, the mayor had directed school officials to re-examine James’s conduct. The Post shared the recording with Bowser’s office Wednesday afternoon.
“The safety of our students is paramount, and we expect all who work with our students to be compassionate and supportive,” Foster said. “After reviewing the tape, the matter will be reviewed further by DCPS.”
Schools officials did not dispute the authenticity of the recording.
James did not respond to calls seeking comment or to a reporter’s inquiry at her home Wednesday.
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), chairman of the council’s Education Committee, said Wednesday night that the recording “damages the trust between Principal James and the Roosevelt community” and that the school system “should remove her from her position.”
The lawsuit and recording offer a rare view of school administrators privately discussing a student’s sexual assault complaint.
Schools are required by Title IX to vigorously investigate allegations of sexual violence on campus, but in recent years educators — particularly at colleges — have come under fire for what critics say are inadequate responses to such incidents. Title IX is the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.
The lawsuit comes as debates over sexual assault victims’ credibility are at the forefront of national politics, with U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh facing allegations by three women of sexual misconduct decades ago. Kavanaugh is scheduled to appear at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday to address those allegations.
The girl who filed the lawsuit promptly reported the alleged attack, in which, she said, a male student pulled her into a bathroom, forced her into a stall and began kissing her and trying to put his hand up her dress. She said that she escaped but that he left a hickey on her neck, which she cites as evidence of the incident in the recording of her meeting with Roosevelt officials.
A D.C. police report shows the girl reported the incident June 14, 2017, the day after the alleged attack. The report states the girl said her attacker “forced her in the male restroom and into a bathroom stall” and “kissed her neck causing a passion mark and touched her buttocks without her consent.” Charges were not filed in the case.
Kasey Murray, the girl’s attorney, said the girl’s mother complained about James’s handling of the accusation to top D.C. Public Schools officials, including David Pinder — an instructional superintendent who oversees more than half the school system’s high schools — and then-Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson. Murray also provided an email showing the mother sent her recording to the school system’s civil rights office.
Murray said the family enlisted an attorney after not getting what they thought was an adequate response. “This mother tried to go through a lot of different avenues to get this addressed before seeking counsel,” Murray said. “The last thing this family wanted to do was bring publicity to themselves.”
The girl and her mother declined to comment through Murray.
In the recording, James is at first solicitous, telling the family she found the girl’s story — which her mother had summarized in an email to the principal earlier that day — “very disturbing.”
School had just let out for the summer, but James said she wanted to immediately address the accusation. “I’m off of work technically . . . but this is vitally important to me,” she said.
The lawsuit states that two other school officials, identified as Assistant Principal Michael Moss and guidance counselor Maurice Butler, were at the meeting. A third, Dean of Students Reginald Stevens, was listening on the phone, the lawsuit states.
Stevens, reached by phone, declined to comment on the recording and lawsuit. Moss and Butler could not be reached for comment.
Soon after the conversation started, the girl balked.
“I don’t want to be here,” she said. “Can I leave?”
She walked out, followed by her mother. Once they had left the room, James began speaking in a low voice over the phone to Stevens, suggesting that she was going to involve the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department in the hope that a police investigation would embarrass the girl.
“This . . . is going to compromise her,” James said. “And that’s why I’m going to go the extra mile and call MPD. That’s why I’m going to do all of this . . . because I’m sick of her. . . . So I’m going to call MPD, I’m going to have a long, drawn-out email just so that I can embarrass her.”
She added, “You should see the dress she’s got on.”
Murray said the mother had previous contact with school officials when she complained about unrelated issues, including the destruction of the one of the girl’s projects. She said the girl had never previously reported a sexual assault.
Under Title IX, school systems are required to investigate allegations of sexual assault, even if a police investigation is underway.
The internal investigation is supposed to ensure that students are safe and that the alleged assault has not interfered with the victim’s access to an education, said Elizabeth Tang, a fellow at the National Women’s Law Center, which advocates for women’s rights.
For example, Title IX requires schools to accommodate students who no longer feel comfortable in the same class with their alleged assailants.
“A lot of schools will say that they don’t have to investigate because the police are doing it. That’s not true,” Tang said.