FARGO — The parents of a Fargo high school girl who reported two male students sexually assaulted her are suing Fargo Public Schools, claiming the district violated federal law and school policy by not investigating the allegations.
The girl's family filed a federal civil complaint on Friday, April 16, against Fargo Public Schools and two of its high schools. It alleges district leaders displayed negligence, indifference and sexual discrimination by violating the district's own policies and Title IX, a federal civil rights law that protects people from sex discrimination in education.
The lawsuit doesn’t name the boys. The mother of the girl who filed the suit said the boys were sentenced in juvenile court. Forum News Service was unable to confirm the sentences since juvenile court records are sealed.
Filing a lawsuit is the strongest way to seek justice and accountability, the mother told Forum News Service in a Tuesday interview.
“I just think there needs to be a voice and advocate for her,” the mother said. “I want others to know that they can come forward and the school will be somewhat supportive of them, not push under the rug.”
Forum News Service is not publishing the names of or other identifying information about the girl or her parents, in an attempt to protect their identities.
Fargo Public Schools declined to comment on the family’s allegations against the district, saying it can’t discuss pending litigation. It provided to The Forum copies of past and present policy for handling sexual assault complaints but didn’t answer questions about the process of handling such cases.
If the lawsuit succeeds, the family could receive an unspecified amount for damages and relief. The family also asked the district to review its policies, enact further measures to protect students who report sexual discrimination, harassment and assault, and require staff to do additional training to “understand the full impacts of sexual violence and their collective responsibilities under Title IX.”
The complaint states the girl and another female student were at the family’s home on Oct. 20, 2019, when the two boys raped the girl whose family later filed the lawsuit. One boy also raped the other female student at the home, the complaint said.
The second girl is not a plaintiff in this lawsuit.
The family who filed the lawsuit reported the allegations to the Fargo Police Department, and then met with school leaders the next day. School officials made a plan to keep the boys away from the girls — the girls and one of the boys attended the same school, the complaint said.
It is unknown if that plan was documented, according to the lawsuit.
The two girls were suspended from extracurricular activities after police found alcohol in the home where the assaults happened, though the mother said there was no proof they were drinking.
Students who are suspended can practice for activities but can’t participate in events.
The mother said she felt her daughter was punished for reporting the crime. The school said it was following policy, the mother said.
“I started thinking, if they are going to punish my girl for drinking off school property over a weekend, why are they not going to punish these boys for the assault they did to my daughter off campus over the weekend?” the mother asked.
The family was under the impression the boys would also be suspended from their after-school activities because of the alcohol, according to the lawsuit.
But the girl’s parents attended a school-related event in mid-November 2019 and saw one of the boys helping with the activity, the mother said.
“We just thought this kid is sitting here interacting with the (participants), acting like he did nothing wrong,” the mother said.
The mother said she found out the school adviser for the boy’s activity was not told about the allegations until December 2019. The boy was then removed from the extracurricular activity.
The mother and her attorney, Kylie Oversen, said the district was supposed to inform the family of the results of its own investigation. The district eventually told Oversen it did not conduct an investigation, nor did it have documentation of one, since the alleged crime took place outside of a school setting.
“The school basically did nothing,” Oversen said.
Fargo Public Schools policy in the 2019-20 school year required the district to complete investigations of sexual misconduct or assault within 20 days of receiving a formal complaint, the lawsuit states.
The policy also requires the district to document the investigation and results, discipline students who have violated the policy and “implement victim protection strategies,” according to the lawsuit.
The parents say they continued to ask the district about updates on the investigation and whether the boys would be disciplined, but the mother said they got no answers.
One school leader said a juvenile court judge would have to decide whether a student is suspended or expelled from school, but case law states that decision is up to the school, according to the complaint.
Deferring a decision to expel or suspend a student to the courts is a violation of federal law, Oversen said.
The girl, who was once a high-performing student, felt revictimized by the district and saw her grades drop, the mother said. She quit her extracurricular activity and visited the nurse's office often due to anxiety and depression caused by seeing the boy in school, the mother added.
“I’ve got texts (from her) saying, ‘They just don’t seem to care,’” the mother said. “Nothing’s happening.”
Sexual assault is an underreported crime in the U.S., and victims' fears of nothing being done contribute to the problem. One in six women have been sexually assaulted, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
Only 230 rapes out of 1,000 are reported to police, nine out of 1,000 are referred to prosecutors and five out of 1,000 lead to a felony conviction, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics.
Forum News Service requested numbers from 2016 through 2020 on how many sexual assault reports were received by Fargo Public Schools, how many were investigated and how many were substantiated. The district has one discipline record under the category of “sexual imposition,” a criminal term in North Dakota law that describes sexual assault, that was documented in the 2017-18 school year, district spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell said in an email.
“I have provided you with the data I have available through our student information systems that most closely relates to your question,” Campbell said. “I do not have any further data to share.”
The mother of the girl in the lawsuit said she never got an answer as to why the district didn't investigate her daughter's case.
She says she sent a letter to district leaders asking that the district require staff to inform students of their rights in written and verbal form.
The mother said she fears students who are raped will not report sexual assaults to the school after hearing how the school allegedly acted in response to her daughter’s case.
“I just think schools need to address it,” she said. “If they're not, they're perpetuating it.”