A former Ballard High School student who was sexually assaulted by a fellow student in March 2018 filed a lawsuit against Seattle Public Schools on Tuesday, alleging the district failed to protect her from the “reasonably foreseeable dangers” of being attacked in an unsupervised, all-gender bathroom.
The lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court by attorney Julie Kays, also claims the school district did nothing to support or protect the then 18-year-old senior after she reported she was raped to Seattle police. Instead, a faculty member accompanied the woman’s assailant, Demonte Rigney, to court when the victim was granted a sexual-assault protection order (SAPO) that led to Rigney’s removal from Ballard High School, according to Kays.
“I was floored, absolutely floored that a member of the high school faculty would show up at a SAPO hearing and rally around” Rigney, said Kays, who represented the woman at the hearing. “It was devastating for my client and her family.”
Tim Robinson, a spokesperson for Seattle Public Schools, said the district’s legal department is reviewing the lawsuit but added it is too early to comment on the litigation.
Though Kays’ client is named in the lawsuit, The Seattle Times is not identifying her because the newspaper does not typically name victims of sex crimes.
Gender-neutral bathrooms are intended to support transgender and gender nonconforming students, and research from the UCLA School of Law in 2018 found there was no link between transgender rights laws and crimes taking place in bathrooms. A 2019 study found that transgender and gender-nonbinary teens are at greater risk of sexual assault if their schools deny them access to bathrooms or locker rooms that match their gender identity.
Still, Kays argues in the lawsuit that Ballard High’s bathroom can be made safer.
“Unsupervised, unmonitored and poorly designed bathrooms at schools are notorious for providing a secreted location for misconduct, bullying, assault and sexual assaults,” Kays wrote in the lawsuit. “Washington Courts have long held that an unsupervised and unmonitored bathroom presents a general field of danger for students that schools must protect against.”
It’s unclear when Ballard High School converted a girls’ bathroom into an all-gender bathroom, said Kays. West Seattle High School was among the first schools in the Puget Sound region to have a dedicated, gender-neutral bathroom, The Seattle Times reported in 2016.
In the criminal case against the woman’s attacker, Rigney was originally charged with third-degree rape. But after reaching a plea agreement with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty in September to the lesser charge of fourth-degree assault with sexual motivation, a misdemeanor, court records show. He was convicted of the same crime in 2015 when he was a juvenile and sentenced to six months of community supervision, according to court records.
Now 21, Rigney admitted he intentionally assaulted the woman “by touching her without her consent for the purposes of my sexual gratification,” says his guilty-plea statement. In October, he received a 364-day suspended sentence, two years of unsupervised probation, and was ordered to complete 24 hours of community service, according to court records. He was also ordered to participate in a boundaries and consent program and provide proof of completion, the records say.
A phone message left for Rigney’s former defense attorney was not immediately returned Thursday.
Kays said that at Rigney’s sentencing, school administrators and a security guard all spoke on his behalf.
“No one is expressing any empathy for the victim of a crime of violence that occurred on campus,” she said. “The district couldn’t have handled it any worse.”
Now a college student, Kays’ client was harassed and followed to class by Rigney’s friends following the rape, the lawsuit says.
The suit alleges the school district was negligent in upholding its “special protective relationship” to students to protect them from reasonably foreseeable dangers, failing to implement design and safety measures to protect students in all-gender bathrooms, and inflicting emotional distress on the victim.
According to the lawsuit and court records in the criminal case against Rigney, he lured the woman to the bathroom on March 28, 2018, under the guise of urgently needing to talk to her. Once inside the bathroom, Rigney used his body to block the door and raped the woman; she told her parents about the attack that evening and they called Seattle police, the records say.
Police later found semen on the bathroom wall and DNA from the sample matched Rigney’s DNA, according to the lawsuit.
The woman is seeking unspecified general and special damages and payment of attorney’s fees, according to the suit.
Kays said her client continues to be fearful about being alone with a member of the opposite sex.
“It’s really impacted her, psychologically and emotionally. Talking about it is very painful,” Kays said. “She really wants the school district to rethink this (all-gender bathrooms) and design it so they’re safe. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.”