Nashville TN May 15 2018
More than 3,400 cases of inappropriate sexual behavior, including sexual harassment and sexual assault, have been documented in Nashville public schools in a recent five-year period, according to evidence filed in an ongoing lawsuit against the school district.
In each of the cases, the offending student or students were disciplined for the behavior. The extent of that discipline is unknown.
Not all of the cases, however, were reported to the Department of Children’s Services, according to a list included in federal court filings.
The list of 3,492 students also does not include all instances of sexual conduct recorded on cellphones and shared via social media — either in consensual or forced encounters. Those, the district acknowledged, are often “coded” differently than other sexual misconduct. A Tennessean investigation found such instances are widespread in Nashville schools.
During interviews for this story, a reporter shared the number of inappropriate sexual behavior incidents with school board members.
Anna Shepherd, chairwoman of the Metro Nashville Board of Education, said board members were unaware of the number of sexual misconduct cases in Nashville’s elementary, middle and high schools.
School board members, she said, are only briefed by the district’s legal team about lawsuits or settlements involving sexual misconduct.
“I would really like to have our legal counsel explain about those numbers and what they represent,” she said. “My reaction is one is too many.”
Search for DCS investigations at Tennessee schools: Start by entering the school, district or county name. Results show the incident type and date.
Board Vice Chairwoman Jill Speering reacted to the number of incidents by saying, “Oh my goodness. I’m not even aware of this.
“It definitely sounds like an astronomical number, and I am not aware of it and I have not been briefed about it as vice chair of the school board,” she said. “That speaks volumes for problems with communications.”
Michelle Michaud, a spokeswoman for the district, noted that the number of reports of sexual conduct in schools is not unique to Nashville.
“The issue of adolescent sexual behavior and activity is concerning; however, we do not consider it to be an issue exclusive to MNPS,” she said.
“MNPS does have a mandatory reporting protocol for allegations of abuse/neglect and adolescent sexual activity. In reality, we over-report to ensure appropriate agencies and staff are notified and able to provide support services to the parties involved. What is important is that we as a society engage, teach and mentor our youth while actively supporting their social and emotional needs. This can help prevent inappropriate sexual behavior and activity amongst our youth.”
The list is part of four separate lawsuits filed against the district alleging school officials failed to properly respond to student-on-student sexual misconduct that was videoed, uploaded to the internet and circulated among students on their cellphones.
A 14-year-old girl identified as “Mary Doe #2” was subject to “unwelcome sexual conduct” involving an unspecified number of 18-year-old male students in a stairway at Maplewood High School in September while at least one male student videoed the incident.
A separate lawsuit was filed by a mother and her 14-year-old daughter, identified as “Jane Doe 2,” who was also present in the Maplewood stairway at the same time and subject to unwelcome sexual conduct that was videoed.
In March 2017, a 15-year-old girl was pulled into a boys bathroom at Hunters Lane High School and sexually assaulted by a male student. The alleged assault was videoed by another student, posted online and circulated among kids’ cellphones.
In April 2017, another 15-year-old girl was sexually assaulted at Hunters Lane, and it also was videoed and shared.
A fifth lawsuit alleges a 14-year-old female Maplewood High School student, identified as “Sally Doe #2,” was subjected to inappropriate sexual contact by a female teacher for most of the 2015-16 school year. The teacher, Janai Smothers, has been charged with sexual battery.
Each lawsuit asks for $3 million and additional punitive damages as well as an injunction forcing Nashville schools to comply with Title IX regulations.
Attorney Stephen Crofford, who represents students in each of the cases, and Jon Cooper, director of the city’s legal department, which is representing the school district, declined to comment.
Crofford requested a list of “all incidents of sexual conduct that occurred within the … public school system within the past five years.”
In response, Nashville schools provided a portion of a district database of 3,492 students involved in incidents that included “sexual harassment,” “inappropriate sexual behavior,” “sexual assault” or “inappropriate sexual contact” for which students were disciplined.
The list does not include instances of “exposing” by some students — a term that includes videoing students in compromising positions, either consensual or non-consensual, then sharing those images via cellphones and on social media. Exposing is a form of cyberbullying that is widespread in local schools, a Tennessean investigation found.
School officials said those were not included because local school officials did not categorize the acts as sexual offenses. Instead they were categorized as “disrupting the school environment.”
As a result, those incidents were never reported to the appropriate district officials, who are required by the federal sexual harassment law Title IX to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct to ensure schools are safe environments for all students.
Nashville police Sgt. James Boone, assigned to Hunters Lane High School between 2012 and 2017, testified administrators at the school alerted him to five to 10 instances involving sexually explicit videotapes circulating among students.
Detective Robert Carrigan said such incidents happen in “every school,” in a separate deposition filed with the court.
“Kids getting images or video and then those being distributed amongst other people. It gets out. And then we have that same issue with students throughout the district,” he said.
If officers believe a crime has occurred — if the videos depict assault or coercion — they pass the information along to the police department’s sex crimes unit.
But the school’s Title IX administrator also is legally responsible for investigating and documenting such instances.
None of the instances of videoing described in the four lawsuits were investigated by the Title IX coordinator, according to court filings.
The lawsuits allege each of the girls who said they were subjected to non-consensual sexual contact were revictimized by having those images circulated among classmates and on social media. It was the responsibility of the district to take action in those instances, the lawsuits say.
Phyllis Dyer, the district’s Title IX coordinator, said that unless the school administrators alerted her that sexual activity was part of the videoing, she could not investigate or intervene. She said she would not even know the scope of the problem.
“So if you had been told about it, these incidents, you could have taken steps to try to prevent it from reoccurring within the Metro Nashville school system, right?” Crofford asked Dyer during an April 4 deposition.
“That would be my role as Title IX coordinator,” Dyer responded, answering the question over the objections of a Metro Nashville attorney.
Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center, called that lack of reporting concerning.