A Northern Virginia high school student is suing the state’s largest school system, arguing he faced discrimination after a classmate accused him of sexual harassment.
The 18-year-old, identified as “John Doe” in court papers, said that Fairfax County Public Schools inadequately investigated accusations leveled against him by a female student at Robinson Secondary School. The male student, who has a 3.2 grade-point average and was on the school’s wrestling team, was transferred to an alternative school and placed on probationary status, according to the lawsuit.
The student is asking a federal judge to clear his record, which the student said could jeopardize his college wrestling scholarship and admission to a “prestigious” university, the lawsuit says.
The case is the third in the past year calling into question the school system’s handling of sexual harassment allegations.
The latest lawsuit alleges that male students are treated “disproportionately harsher” when facing sexual misconduct accusations than female students in Fairfax public schools, violating Title IX, the law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in schools that receive federal money. The student also argues that the school district violated his due process and free-speech rights.
“If a male student and female student are both engaged in mutual sexual contact or touching on school grounds, it is common for the male student to be punished and for the female student not to be punished, based on gender,” the lawsuit says.
Fairfax schools spokesman John Torre declined to address specific allegations in the lawsuit, citing student privacy concerns. But he said the school system “thoroughly investigates all allegations of Title IX violations and takes action, where appropriate.”
The school system has asked a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to dismiss the case. A hearing is scheduled for Friday .
The student contends that the school system’s investigation was influenced by recent national media attention on sexual assault. In the school system’s zeal to make it appear it handles alleged sexual misconduct toward female students aggressively, the lawsuit alleges, male students are treated more harshly than female students.
Jesse Binnall, an attorney representing the Robinson student, said the 187,830-student school system does not have appropriate measures to address sexual harassment allegations.
“It’s critical that there be a process in place that gives somebody accused of a serious offense the opportunity to defend themselves,” Binnall said. “Nobody should be sexually harassed, but there has to be a good process so that you don’t get innocent people found guilty of things they didn’t do.”
That argument has resonated on a federal level.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos moved in November to rewrite rules governing campus sexual harassment and assault allegations in such a way that the accused would be accorded more rights. The proposal drew swift rebuke from women’s rights advocates and Democrats who argued that the rules would allow assailants and schools to dodge responsibility for harassment and assault.
The Robinson case stems from a December incident in which the 18-year-old student who filed the lawsuit was near another male student who allegedly slapped a female student’s buttocks. Surveillance video showed Binnall’s client did not slap the female student, according to the lawsuit.
The female student filed a complaint with a school administrator, accusing both male students of sexual harassment, the lawsuit says.
The student who filed the lawsuit said he and the young woman flirted with each other but described those interactions, including “playfully” poking her in class and putting his arm around her, as consensual.
Binnall’s client denied the harassment allegations during an investigation started by an assistant principal. The teenager said that his accuser “colluded” with her friends to make false statements about him during the investigation and that the assistant principal disregarded information from witnesses that was favorable to the male student.
School administrators suspended the male student, and school system administrators held a hearing on the complaint on Dec. 21, the lawsuit says.
The male student cited several concerns about the system’s investigation. He said that the hearing procedures were inadequate and biased, and that he learned about the hearing in a letter that arrived at his home the day before it was scheduled.
Fairfax public schools are facing two other federal lawsuits related to handling of sexual misconduct allegations. One lawsuit was filed in July by a former Lake Braddock Secondary School student, also accused of sexual misconduct. The Lake Braddock student similarly argued that he was discriminated against and punished unfairly because of his gender.
That lawsuit was filed by Binnall, the attorney representing the Robinson student. Binnall no longer represents the Lake Braddock student, according to court documents.
The third lawsuit was filed by a former Oakton High School female student who accused school officials of failing to properly investigate a sexual assault that allegedly took place aboard a bus on a school band trip to Indianapolis.
In its response to that lawsuit, Fairfax schools officials rejected the Oakton student’s account of sexual assault, calling the incident a “sexual encounter” that school district officials “took meaningful and appropriate action” to address.