A lawsuit filed in Montana’s federal district court has added one of the country’s best-known sexual assault litigators to its team. John Clune has gotten settlements for clients in cases against the University of Oregon ($800,000 and tuition for a student who was allegedly raped by basketball players), Baylor University (an undisclosed settlement for a woman who said she was raped by football players) and Florida State University ($950,000 for the woman who accused football star Jameis Winston of rape). The Washington Post called him one of the “best attorneys in the country for victims of sex crimes at colleges.”
Clune and Lauren Groth, both of the Denver firm Hutchinson Black and Cook, have signed on along with Helena attorney Mike Meloy (who pressed for the release of University of Montana records sought by author Jon Krakauer in the course of reporting Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town) on a Title IX civil case against the Frenchtown School District and Superintendent Randy Cline. The plaintiffs are the parents of a former Frenchtown High School student, known as Jane Doe in the filing. They charge that the district violated their daughter’s rights under Title IX by mishandling complaints of sexual harassment and assault by music teacher Troy Bashor, who is facing criminal charges in the matter in Missoula County and is not a defendant in the civil suit. The district is represented by Missoula’s Kaleva Law Office, which specializes in education law.
“We get calls from a lot of places around the country, but this one seemed pretty significant, and it seemed like there was no relief for this one young woman,” Clune says. The suit alleges that the school did not respond adequately to a complaint about Bashor by another student before Doe, and did not act to protect Doe from harassment and retaliation after she reported the teacher.
Under Title IX, any educational institution that receives federal funding must ensure freedom from discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual harassment and violence. While compliance at the university level and the use of Title IX civil litigation as a tool to force universities to address sexual assault has received a great deal of attention over the last few years, this case illustrates how enforcement at the K-12 level lags, Clune says.
“The understanding of what’s required of the school is much less likely at the K-12 level,” Clune says. “I think it’s primarily a lack of attention. The information they need to comply is all available to them. They may not have the training you see at a post-secondary institution. Some of the issues you see are so fundamental.”
Public Justice, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization, tracks settlements and verdicts in K-12 Title IX cases. One of its staff attorneys who has worked and written extensively on public school cases, Adele Kimmel, says that K-12 schools also haven’t been pressured as much as universities. “Some of it’s resources, some of it’s activism. There’s been so much activism at the college level, and you haven’t had that at the K-12 level,” Kimmel says. “There are more student groups cropping up. Schools will be forced to do better.”
Frenchtown has a designated Title IX coordinator, David Duhame, who is also a teacher. Duhame has been the district’s Title IX coordinator for 10 years at least, he says, and attends trainings every two to three years to keep up with changes. However, he told the Independent, he is responsible for student-to-student reports only. When there’s a reported incident between a student and a staff member, that will be handled by district administrative staff, depending on which school facility the complaint originates from. The internal Title IX investigation of student complaints against Bashor was handled by Frenchtown High’s principal and vice-principal.
Kimmel says that having a teacher serve as a Title IX coordinator is less than ideal.
“A Title IX coordinator’s not supposed to be limited,” she says. “A Title IX coordinator is supposed to be providing assistance to students, and employees for that matter, when they’ve been a victim of harassment or discrimination, whether it’s student-on-student or teacher-on-student.”
While many aspects of the allegations follow patterns that Kimmel says show up repeatedly, like retaliation when the accused teacher is popular, multiple accusers coming forward before action is taken and schools failing to take timely action, there’s one aspect that stands out. Superintendent Cline published an op-ed in the Missoulian after the school concluded its investigation in which he suggested that Jane Doe hadn’t been completely forthcoming. Kimmel says that, in itself, constitutes a Title IX violation as a form of retaliation and public discussion of confidential student matters.
Has Clune seen any other cases where an administrator has communicated publicly about a case like that?
“I’ve never seen that before,” he says. “Either at the K-12 or university level.”