ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A federal judge on Friday sanctioned Virginia’s largest school system for destroying or failing to preserve documents relevant to a lawsuit accusing school officials of ignoring a girl’s claim she was sexually assaulted.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Nachmanoff in Alexandria imposed the sanctions Friday on the Fairfax County School Board as it prepares to defend its actions in a trial scheduled for next month.
An Oakton High School student says she was sexually assaulted on a bus by a male student on an out-of-state band trip in 2017. The lawsuit alleges the school system failed to take the girl’s allegation seriously.
The judge said the school system either destroyed or failed to preserve relevant notes and text messages from their investigation even though it knew it was required to retain them. The school system had created a computer system designed to retain such evidence after it reached a 2014 settlement with the U.S. Department of Education over allegations that it failed to properly investigate a sexual harassment allegation.
Lawyers for the student, who is identified only as Jane Doe, say they have strong reason to believe that the missing notes and text messages may be helpful to their case, because some messages they were able to obtain indicate that school officials were joking about the allegation. One official sent a text message after learning of the allegation saying “one time on a band trip” — a reference to the film “American Pie,” in which the characters engage in a running joke about sexual activity at band camp.
“Fairfax County Public Schools’ destruction or loss of evidence in this case — acknowledged by the court today — is appalling,” said Adele Kimmel, one of Doe’s lawyers and a senior attorney with Public Justice, a legal advocacy group. “This destruction or loss of key evidence is just one more example of the school district’s failure to follow the law.”
Lawyers for the school system had argued that the notes and text messages may have become misplaced during school renovations, and also argued that they weren’t on notice that the girl would file a lawsuit and that the documents would be needed until it was too late.
Fairfax County Public Schools issued a statement Friday night saying it will appeal the ruling.
“FCPS respectfully disagrees with the judge’s ruling on both the facts and the law,” the school system said. “The documents in question were inadvertently lost months before we were aware of any threatened lawsuit from the plaintiff.”
Neither the girl nor the boy was punished by school officials, who concluded in their investigation that the sexual contact was consensual. In court papers, the school system says it did not believe the girl’s accusation of an assault in part because she initially expressed concern about getting in trouble for her conduct.
Under the sanctions imposed Friday by Nachmanoff, Jane Doe’s lawyers will be able to tell the jury at trial that the school system lost or destroyed relevant documents, and that the jury will be allowed “to infer that those documents would be detrimental to defendant’s case.”
Jane Doe’s lawsuit is one of three filed in federal court in 2018 and 2019 accusing Fairfax County Public Schools of botching sex-harassment investigations. The other two were filed by boys who say they were unfairly punished on false accusations by female students. One of those cases has been dismissed, and the other remains ongoing.