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CHUH School District sued over alleged failure to respond to sexual abuse

Front of Cleveland Heights High School seen from the street
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland Heights High School

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Cleveland Wednesday, several current and former students in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District are alleging the school failed to properly respond to allegations of sexual misconduct.

The allegations are from five unnamed people. The oldest allegation, from 2012, involves inappropriate touching of a kindergartener by another kindergartener. The most recent, from the 2019-2020 school year, led to a district investigation that took 16 months to conclude the accused had violated the district's sexual harassment policy. By that time, the accused had already graduated.

“We're talking about essentially a decades-long period involving these five individuals,” said Eric Long, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs. “This is one of the more significant lawsuits dealing with the pervasiveness and just the utter lack of compliance within a local school district.”

The suit, filed Wednesday in the Northern District of Ohio, names as defendants the school district, the board of education, the superintendent, two administrators, two principals and five John Does, who may have worked for the school system.

The complaint alleges the district violated Title IX, the 1972 federal law meant to bring equity between men and women in education that requires any school receiving federal aid take action to protect students from sexual misconduct.

In a statement, Superintendent Elizabeth Kirby said the district takes its Title IX responsibilities seriously.

"CH-UH Schools are committed to having the resources and processes in place to respond to allegations of Title IX violations promptly, thoroughly and equitably," Kirby said.

She listed several steps the school has taken since 2022, including employing a full-time Title IX coordinator, adopting a "consent-based curriculum" for middle school and high school students and forming an advisory committee on Title IX issues that includes students, parents and staff.

Read the district's complete response at the bottom of this story.

The allegations

The lawsuit describes five separate incidents at Fairfax Elementary School, Roxboro Middle School and Cleveland Heights High School, all in Cleveland Heights.

The plaintiffs allege that the school either failed to fully investigate or delayed the completion of the investigation for too long and, whether an investigation was completed or not, did not take the required actions to address the accusers’ concerns.

In the case of the kindergartener, the student’s parents claim they notified the school after a classmate put his hands down her pants at school and during recess. According to the complaint, the parents asked to have their child moved to a different class, and the school denied the request.

“There are reasonable accommodations that could be made without adjudicating a five-year-old as being responsible for sexual harassment,” Long said. “There are things that can be done to make sure that [the accuser] is safe and comfortable and, frankly, getting access to the education they have a right to.”

The lawsuit alleges none of those steps were taken. The child, identified in the complaint as John Roe 3, was allegedly allowed to stay next to the girl, identified as Jane Doe 3, during nap time after the request for a class change was denied. The lawsuit alleges the behavior continued.

Her parents, who are not identified in the complaint, decided to homeschool their daughter until the 5th grade. When they attempted to reenroll her at a school in the district five years later, they found out John Roe 3 was attending the same school. They asked if she could attend a different school, but the request was denied, the complaint says.

“The secretary of the district superintendent told [the girl’s mother] that Jane Doe 3 should be ‘over’ the incident by now, as it occurred five years ago, and they did not have any record of the prior incident,” the complaint alleges.

The district's response has changed over the years, plaintiffs say

According to Long, the district’s response to allegations has changed over the years. In 2012, there was no investigation, but years later, when other investigations were conducted, the lawsuit says, the investigations were inadequate, delayed and resulted in little improvement of the learning conditions for the accuser.

“One of the reasons that this lawsuit is important is because we need to put these schools on notice that they do have these obligations,” Long said. “Unfortunately, this is one of the ways that we can get folks to kind of wake up and realize this is an issue both within the families and students and community but also within the schools themselves.”

In another incident at Roxboro Middle School during the 2015-2016 school year, a 14-year-old allegedly sexually assaulted an 11-year-old identified as Jane Doe 1 in a closet behind the school’s auditorium.

The principal suspended the alleged victim for engaging in sexual conduct on campus, and no further action was taken by the school.

“At the time, Jane Doe 1 was eleven years old, and did not know what ‘consensual’ meant, nor did she have the legal ability to ‘consent’ to sexual contact,” the lawsuit states.

In more recent cases, a Title IX coordinator has been tasked with addressing concerns. The lawsuit alleges that change has done little to improve outcomes.

A Title IX coordinator is responsible for coordinating a district's efforts to comply with Title IX, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The mother of one of the plaintiffs, identified as Jane Doe 4 and a freshman at Cleveland Heights High School at the time of the alleged incident, filed a formal complaint with the district’s Title IX coordinator on June 7, 2021.

The complaint accuses a sophomore at CHHS, whose mother and mother’s boyfriend were coaches for district sports teams, of raping her daughter outside of school a year and a half earlier.

Ideastream has not been able to independently verify details of the rape allegation because the name of the accused is not included in the lawsuit.

It took the district’s investigator nine months to complete the investigation, according to the complaint. During that time, the accused was allowed to continue attending school without restrictions and worked at a girls’ sports camp, it said.

On Sept. 21, 2022, the district found that the accused had sexually harassed Jane Doe 4. In its decision, the district did not consider her allegations of off-campus misconduct, including the alleged rape. By the time the board made its decision, the accused had already graduated from high school.

Long said these alleged failures by the district have been discussed publicly for years, including at district board meetings and other public events, and he believes the five families involved in this lawsuit are just the tip of the iceberg.

“These families are very brave coming forward,” Long said. “They certainly don't have to, and many of them have left the district and are in college now or doing other things but want to really use this platform to make sure that this is not something that can continue to happen in a district that they lived in and cared about.”

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.