A federal judge has dismissed the defamation case of a high school student accused of sexual assault by four other students, but who then had the charges dropped against him after two of the accusing students admitted they lied.
Parents Michael and Alecia Flood and their minor son, T.F., filed the lawsuit against four other students, K.S., C.S., E.S., and H.R., their parents, and the Seneca Valley School District in Pennsylvania, on grounds that their son was the victim of defamatory statements when two of the minor defendants admitted they lied in accusing him of sexual assault.
Though the charges against T.F. were ultimately dismissed, the four accusing students were never punished.
The plaintiffs alleged that the school district violated the 14thAmendment and discriminated against T.F. on the basis of sex when the school district enforced its student discipline policies based on the sexual assault accusations made against him, the Pennsylvania Record reported. The Floods and their son said the school district had punished T.F. based on the false accusations, but failed to punish the accusing students for lying.
In his opinion, Chief U.S. District Judge Mark R. Hornak in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, an Obama appointee, wrote that the Floods’ complaint “fails to plead that a final policymaker took any action toward T.F. that could represent official policy attributable to the school district.”
The court also concludes that the amended complaint fails to plead that any final policymaker of the school district had knowledge or constructive knowledge of prior events of sexual misconduct such that any final policymaker could have been “deliberately indifferent” to the need for additional safeguards against disparate applications of school district policy.
In 2017, a teacher reportedly heard K.S. tell other students T.F. sexually assaulted her while both students had worked at the Zelienople Community Pool during the summer.
The teacher reported K.S.’s remarks, and K.S. was subsequently summoned to the guidance counselor’s office where she repeated her accusation against T.F. The counselor reported the accusation to Childline, a program for reports of child abuse and neglect.
K.S. repeated her accusations of sexual assault against T.F. to a forensic interviewer.
T.F. was then charged with indecent assault and two counts of harassment.
After K.S. said T.F.’s presence in her classes made her “uncomfortable,” the high school principal changed T.F.’s class schedule and the boy underwent a consent decree whereby he did not plead guilty to the charges but agreed to a six-month probation under the supervision of the Butler County Juvenile Probation Department.
In March 2018, one of the other students, C.S., invited T.F. to her home to hang out with friends. T.F. said he went to C.S.’s home, where he saw C.S., E.S., and H.R. drinking alcohol. T.F. said he did not drink alcohol and left the party early.
Three days after the gathering at C.S.’s home, other students at Seneca Valley Intermediate High School heard K.S. and C.S. devising a plan that C.S. would make a false statement to the guidance counselor that T.F. came to her home, uninvited, and sexually assaulted her.
Following the false statement to the guidance counselor, C.S., E.S., and H.R. gave the same allegations to the Butler County Alliance for Children. H.R. also proceeded to tell other students about their accusations against T.F.
T.F. was subsequently charged with indecent assault, forcible compulsion, criminal trespass and simple assault in April 2018. The police placed him in leg and wrist shackles and removed him from class. After a hearing, he was held at the Keystone Education Center for nine days and was then released on house arrest with an ankle monitor.
At school, Seneca Valley athletic director Heather Lewis prohibited T.F. from playing baseball, though Butler County probation officials informed the Floods he would be permitted to do so.
Once the Floods began to investigate the charges against their son and obtained exculpatory evidence, E.S. and H.R. admitted to lying about the sexual assault, and T.F.’s ankle monitor was removed.
In August, all charges against T.F. were dropped. The school district did not punish K.S., C.S., E.S., and H.R.
“Even if Plaintiffs could succeed in demonstrating that the principal’s decision to not punish the minor Defendants was an act attributable to the School District as the act of a final policymaker, the Plaintiffs would “bear the additional burden of proving” that this act “was the proximate cause of the injuries suffered,” the judge wrote in his opinion, and continued:
The “deprivation of federal rights” allegedly caused by School District action was changing T.F.’s class schedule and preventing T.F. from playing baseball for Seneca Valley. Even if the minor Defendants were later punished by the school for their allegedly false allegations, this later punishment would have no effect on the punishment that had already been inflicted upon T.F. Plaintiffs may not think it is fair that the minor Defendants were not punished, but this is not enough to satisfy causation here.
“The assertion that T.F. ‘s psychological and physical harms are being exacerbated by ‘enduring the injustice’ of knowing that his accusers have not been punished … is too attenuated from any School District action to demonstrate proximate causation,” the judge said.