This story has been updated.
A D.C. high school principal captured on tape ridiculing a student who had reported a sexual assault was placed on administrative leave Thursday by city officials amid growing calls for the principal’s ouster.
The action came after The Washington Post reported that Aqueelha James, principal of Roosevelt High School in Northwest Washington, talked to colleagues about “embarrassing” a freshman who alleged she was assaulted on campus.
The student and her mother filed a lawsuit against James and the D.C. government in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia claiming that the principal failed to adequately investigate the sexual assault allegations and that she defamed the girl by impugning her credibility to police officers.
James did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday and Thursday.
The family’s attorney, Kasey Murray, provided The Post with an email that appeared to show that the student’s mother sent the recording of James’s remarks to the D.C. Public Schools civil rights office in July 2017. Murray also said the mother shared the tape with David Pinder, an instructional superintendent who oversees more than half the school system’s high schools.
The school system said it launched and closed an investigation months ago into the handling of the case but declined to provide details of that review.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Thursday that she listened to the recording and called on D.C. Public Schools to reexamine James’s conduct.
On Friday, Bowser described her reaction after listening to the recording: “It’s outrageous, the language was outrageous.”
The mayor said she is reviewing “the whole of the investigation including DCPS, MPD and onto prosecutors. So there’s a whole lot of things we want to make sure happened correctly. But what we know wasn’t correct was the language used whether it was in private or in front of the student.”
The Post does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault without their consent and is not naming the girl or her mother.
In a letter to Roosevelt families, Amanda Alexander, interim chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, said the system will conduct a second review of how the case was handled. Alexander, who started as interim chancellor in February, was not leading the school system at the time of the alleged assault in 2017.
“Please be assured that [the D.C. school system] takes the safety, security and privacy of all of our students seriously,” Alexander wrote in the letter. “While this review is in progress, it is important for everyone that Roosevelt High School continue to be a loving and challenging place of learning where students feel safe.”
James, who has been principal at Roosevelt since 2016, will remain on paid administrative leave until the investigation concludes, officials said. D.C. principals, who have one-year contracts, are unionized and represented by the Council of School Officers. James earns $147,000 annually.
Roosevelt, in the District’s Petworth neighborhood, has more than 650 students. The student body’s makeup is 54 percent black and 45 percent Hispanic. More than 85 percent of students are considered at-risk — defined as those who are homeless, are recipients of welfare or food stamps, or have languished in high school.
According to the civil rights lawsuit, a freshman student and her mother met with James and three other school officials in June 2017 to report a sexual assault. The student says a male student forced her into a bathroom 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.
The mother recorded the conversation with James on her phone but briefly left in the middle of the meeting to tend to her distraught daughter. She said she inadvertently left the recorder on when she left James’s office with her daughter and later discovered that James said, “This is a bunch of bulls---.”
James also criticized the girl’s clothing and described what would happen when she involved D.C. police. “This . . . is going to compromise her,” James said on the recording. “So I’m going to call MPD, I’m going to have a long, drawn-out email just so that I can embarrass her.”
Pinder held an emergency meeting Thursday morning with Roosevelt staff members, according to school system spokesman Shayne Wells. Students said they were shocked to learn how the principal had handled the case.
Taahir Kelly, a Roosevelt senior, said he is writing a letter with classmates that he plans to post at school and in the neighborhood to inform people of what happened and show that students do not condone sexual assault. He noted that this is not the first incident of an alleged sexual assault at Roosevelt and that leadership needs to respond more forcefully.
In 2016, the school’s football coach was suspended after a sexual assault allegation involving players on the football team.
“This is a big matter,” Kelly said. “This has started conversations.”
Tayla Davis, a sophomore, said she was dismayed that the principal commented on the student’s clothing when she was reporting a sexual assault.
“It was uncalled for,” she said. “She could have done better with the situation.”
D.C. Council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4), whose district includes Roosevelt, said he agreed with the city’s decision to place James on administrative leave and to further investigate the incident.
“It is incumbent upon our Principals to treat all claims of sexual assault or any form of violence in school with the utmost seriousness and respect,” Todd said in a statement. “Principal James’ actions have considerably undermined the trust that is required between a Principal and their school community, and it remains to be seen if that trust can be restored.”
Justin Wm. Moyer and Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.