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District Settles With Parents Of Garfield High Student Who Alleged Sexual Assault

Kyle Stokes
At a Seattle School Board hearing on Aug. 20, 2014, a dozen protesters hold signs decrying Seattle Public Schools' response to 2012 allegations of sexual assault by a former Garfield High School student.

Seattle Public Schools officials have reached a settlement agreement with the family of a Garfield High School student who alleged she was sexually assaulted during an overnight school trip in 2012, the district announced Wednesday.

As part of a $700,000 settlement agreement, the parents have agreed to dismiss complaints they'd filed with state and federal officials, and to not pursue "monetary claims" against the district and to stop filing public records requests with the district, according to a Seattle Public Schools statement.

"Our goal was to not have this happen again to another family that would have to live through this trauma," said the Garfield student's father in an interview. (KPLU is withholding the family's name to protect the privacy of the student, who's still a minor.)

District Avoids Liability, Considers Settlment 'Fair'

Though an investigation into the Garfield student's allegations did not result in criminal charges, the case has generated both national attention and vocal protest. But since the incident, the district says it has taken several steps to ensure it follows federal laws governing how school personnel handle sexual harassment and assault.

"While the settlement does not hold the district liable for the incident, district officials do consider this a fair settlement that allows the district to focus its efforts on improving our processes to prevent and respond to incidents of sexual harassment, and provides funds for the student to pursue her education," the district said in a statement.

"All of these things are first steps," said Jeff Caffee, an attorney representing the student's family. "But [district officials] need to continue to improve and continue to actually implement not only the field trip procedures but Title IX compliance. This is not going to be over tomorrow for the Seattle Public Schools. This is going to be something they will need to continually work on.

The settlement is also subject to school board members' blessing. They'll vote on approving the agreement next week.

What Happened In 2012

At issue was the district's response to a 2012 incident during a Garfield High School trip to a nature camp on the Olympic Peninsula, which KPLU detailed last summer.

During the overnight hours between Nov. 6 and Nov. 7, 2012, a sophomore girl, then 15, climbed through a window into the boys cabin. There, a male student had sex with her, despite her telling the boy to stop several times. She later told teachers about the incident and presented telltale physical and emotional signs of rape when doctors examined her in a Port Angeles emergency room.

Prosecutors declined to press charges against the male student in the case, who claimed the sex was consensual. Regardless, a federal law called Title IX legally obligates district employees to investigate the incident immediately — a process that didn't formally begin until May 2013, seven months later.

"The problem is widespread" in K-12 schools, said Linda Mangel, education policy director at the ACLU of Washington, in an August interview. "Schools don't understand they have this obligation, and because they don't understand they have this obligation, they don't have people in place whose job it is to meet this obligation."

Next Steps For The District

During a school board meeting in August, Seattle Public Schools interim superintendent Larry Nyland called the case "an incident of great concern to each of us, and one that we need to learn from and take vigorous action in terms of improving our practice."

Saying last month that "substantial work is required to bring the district into compliance," Seattle Public Schools officials announced they would convene a task force to review the district's policies and procedures for handling claims of sexual harassment and assault.

Wednesday's statement also outlined several steps the district says it has already taken to ensure it follows Title IX correctly, including holding trainings both with staffers charged with overseeing compliance with the law and with other district employees.

The district also said it is updating its policies on field trips. Garfield High School's principal recently announced he would not approve any overnight field trips at the school this year.

Caffee said these changes came after public pressure from his clients and from their supporters.

"They saw a problem that Seattle Public Schools needed to fix. I think what they've done as far as being out there and being visible forced the Seattle Public Schools to confront these issues," he said.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.