BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Some facts of the case aren't in dispute: A teacher's aide asked a 14-year-old girl to go into a middle school bathroom as bait so a 16-year-old eight-grader with a history of sexual harassment could be caught trying to have sex with her and disciplined.
The scheme backfired. The girl was sexually assaulted in a bathroom stall, evidence shows.
Exactly why the plan was carried out and who knew about it are at the heart of a court fight pitting the Obama administration and groups that advocate against sexual violence versus a north Alabama school district that says its administrators aren't to blame for the 2010 attack.
The Justice Department and 33 private organizations have asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a lower court's decision to dismiss a federal lawsuit filed by the girl's father against the Madison County School Board, four school workers and the boy.
They contend U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Putnam should have let the lawsuit move forward, arguing he erred when ruling that Sparkman Middle School officials didn't have sufficient warning the boy might pose a threat. Putnam didn't endorse the idea of using a girl as bait for a predator, but said allowing her to be put in such a position wasn't bad enough for the lawsuit to continue under legal standards.
"Although it was foolish to send (the girl) to meet (the boy), the court cannot say that it was 'extreme and outrageous.' The scheme to catch (the boy) ended horribly and tragically, but the idea of using (the girl) to catch (the boy) 'in the act,' however foolish, was not so extreme or outrageous as 'to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized society,'" Putnam wrote in an opinion in July 2013 in the lawsuit filed under the federal Title IX law which in part prohibits sexual harassment in schools.
The Justice Department last month sided with the plaintiff's position that school administrators knew of the plan and should have realized the boy was a threat based on his history of propositioning girls. It is asking the 11th Circuit to reinstate the lawsuit, which seeks an unspecified amount of money.
The Women's Law Project and 32 other groups also asked the appeals court to revive the lawsuit, arguing school administrators were partly to blame for what happened to the girl.
"The district court failed to appreciate the role of the school's sexual harassment policy and conduct in causing (the girl's) rape," said a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the organizations.
The lawsuit concerns a series of events — some disputed, others not — at the school in Toney.
Ronnie Blair was the principal; Jeanne Dunaway and Teresa Terrell were assistant principals; and June Simpson was a teacher's aide. The boy named in the lawsuit had been subject to discipline by administrators at least 14 times, including four for sexual harassment of female students, the judge found, and he had more infractions at a past school.
Some documents indicate at least one of the youths involved has been in a special needs program, but their exact status isn't clear because of student privacy laws. Court files do not include the girl's name, and The Associated Press isn't reporting the boy's because he was a juvenile at the time, wasn't charged with a crime and was dismissed as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Rumors had circulated in the school in late 2009 that the boy was propositioning girls for sex, and the stories continued after the holiday break. Simpson signed a sworn statement saying she went to the principal with her concerns.
"Blair advised me that we were going to have to catch (the boy) in the act before he could take any disciplinary action ...," Simpson said in the document.
Simpson said that on Jan. 22, 2010, the girl came to her saying the boy had propositioned her to have sex with him in a boy's bathroom.
"I suggested to them that (the girl) agree to meet (the boy) in the restroom so he could be 'caught in the act,' because Mr. Blair had told me that nothing could be done to help these girls until he was caught in the act," Simpson said.
After the girl agreed, Simpson said she took her to Dunaway's office and told the assistant principal about the plan. Dunaway appeared "disinterested," Simpson said.
The girl, in sworn testimony, said she met the boy in a bathroom at his urging and he began trying to take off her pants in a stall.
"I said 'I don't want to do this,'" the girl told lawyers.
She said she tried to block the boy but he raped her moments before teachers entered the bathroom. Police were called and an examination found injuries consistent with rape, but no charges were filed.
Authorities have said the boy wasn't prosecuted because the girl initially said she wasn't threatened or forced to have sex.
Simpson said she quit after Blair threatened her with termination and prosecution, but Blair remains at the school. Dunaway was promoted and is now principal at an elementary school in Madison County.
The school denies administrators knew anything about Simpson's plan, and Blair testified that he wasn't sure if he ever told workers the boy had to be "caught in the act" before he could be disciplined.
"I may have, but the point was it had to be proven that he was guilty of something before it would have -- he could be punished for that particular situation," Blair said.