Decatur schools reach deal with feds
Agency found sexual assault allegations were mishandled by district.

The City Schools of Decatur violated federal regulations by failing to complete an investigation of a 5-year-old girl’s claim she was sexually assaulted by a boy in the girl’s bathroom, the federal government ruled.

The district is making amends by revisiting alleged incidents of sexual harassment in bathrooms over the two years from the fall of 2017.

That is when the girl’s mother alleged a boy followed her daughter into the bathroom from their kindergarten classroom at Oakhurst Elementary School and assaulted her when the two were alone.

Decatur’s bathroom policy follows guidance from the administration of former President Barack Obama. It lets students pick a bathroom based on their gender identity.

Georgia was among 11 states that challenged the guidance in federal court before U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded it in early 2017. Decatur has kept its policy, opening itself to criticism from conservatives who claim boys can abuse it.

“While this position has made the district a lightning rod for those who feel otherwise, we will stand by our values,” the district said in a statement after the release of the findings by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.   

The federal agency did not conclude whether the assault actually occurred, faulting Decatur’s investigative efforts in this and other alleged incidents.

“Not only did the district fail to investigate the parent’s report, but the evidence demonstrates that the district learned of, but likely failed to respond to, information about at least two other incidents of harassment in the bathrooms concerning” the alleged assailant, the June 19 findings say.

The findings indicate he was reportedly the victim those times, once in the girls’ bathroom and the other in the boys’ bathroom.

The complaint filed by the 5-year-old girl’s mother in 2018 had said the alleged assailant was “gender fluid,” but the federal findings were inconclusive on that point.

After the allegations were made about his child, the alleged assailant’s father reported his child claimed having been assaulted in the girls’ and boys’ bathrooms.

The federal findings say Decatur’s lack of a thorough investigation was “particularly concerning” given the bathroom policy. Because of it, officials should have been “extra vigilant” about responding properly to reported harassment, the document says. “Instead, OCR found no evidence that the district assessed the existence of sexual harassment” despite the concerns expressed by both parents.

The girl’s mother, who has since moved her family from Decatur, is now suing in U.S. District Court in Atlanta.

Her Norcross lawyer, Vernadette Broyles, has been described as an ally by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian group based in Arizona.

Broyles claims her client’s complaint was ignored by school officials because she is a Black single woman of modest means. The woman said in a recent interview affluent white mothers could get an audience with school district Superintendent David Dude when she could not. She said she was initially ignored by him and by other administrators after she made her assault complaint.

“This would have been handled totally differently if I was a middle-class white person,” she said. “What they tried to do is sweep it under the rug.”

(The mother’s name appears on the lawsuit, which was filed in May, but The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is not publishing it because that would identify her daughter. The newspaper does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.) Decatur denies it ignored the mom or treated her differently.

“The complainant’s race or financial situation were not factors in the investigation, and the allegations of discrimination based on race and SES (socio-economic status) were never raised” with Decatur, a district spokeswoman wrote to the AJC.

As evidence of “recklessly and deliberately indifferent” behavior toward the girl, the federal lawsuit Broyles filed for the mother and her daughter refers to a January 2018 communication sent by the Oakhurst principal to parents concerning a “rumor” about the alleged bathroom assault. After “a thorough investigation” by the school system, police and social service agencies, the principal wrote, the district was led “to confidently determine that the allegation was unfounded.”

The Office for Civil Rights examination notes the city police didn’t investigate (police said the alleged assailant was too young to prosecute) and says the school district failed to follow through with its investigation, deferring instead to the Georgia Division of Family & Children Services. That agency normally reveals little of what it finds, even to schools, but the federal investigation faults Decatur for not knowing the outcome of the agency’s investigation and for not adhering to its policy requiring a “thorough investigation” followed by a report to the parents and school principal about its conclusions and recommendations.

Decatur signed a resolution agreement with the federal government, agreeing to implement new processes for responding to such complaints, to offer counseling to the girl and to solicit information about, and then investigate, any other alleged sexual harassment between the fall of 2017 and fall of 2019.

The school district won’t comment on the girl’s new lawsuit, but says it has no plans to change its bathroom policy.

The district invoked a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last month protecting gay and transgender people from discrimination at work, in a case brought in part by Gerald Bostock, a man who said he was fired from his job with Clayton County because he is gay. Discrimination based on transgender identity is discrimination based on sex, the district said, so its bathroom policy is a legal requirement: Segregating transgender students “is simply incompatible with the law and our values.”