Family objects as Nashville schools seek to delay sex assault lawsuit

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Ayrika Whitney/USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee

Metro Nashville Public Schools want a federal court to put on hold a $3 million lawsuit involving a teacher accused of sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old student until criminal charges are completed. 

But an attorney for the girl’s family argues a delay will prolong the girl’s emotional anguish and postpone an inquiry into whether the district takes appropriate steps to comply with a federal law known as Title IX.

The law requires public schools and universities to maintain a safe environment and properly respond to reports of sexual misconduct. 

“Staying this case will prolong relief for (the girl), who has suffered extreme mental and emotional anguish due to (Metro School’s) noncompliance with Title IX,” states a Dec. 21 filing from Stephen Crofford, the attorney for the family. 

Former Maplewood High School teacher Janai Smothers, 25, was arrested Nov. 6 in Fresno, Calif. on allegations of sexual misconduct involving the then-freshman girl during the 2015-16 school year. Smothers is charged with one count of sexual battery by an authority figure. She is due to be arraigned in Nashville Jan. 31.

More: Nashville teacher sexual misconduct case riddled with school, police errors

More: Ex-Nashville teacher, accused of sexual contact with student, arrested while teaching in Fresno

More: New teacher sex misconduct allegation marks 5th Title IX lawsuit against Metro schools

The family of the student filed suit against Metro schools in early November. The family, identified only as the “Does” in court papers, said the school system failed to protect their daughter.  

When the allegations first emerged at the school, the principal called the student’s parents to his office and told them the girl “was not innocent” and that the incident should be “swept under the rug,” according to the suit.

Smothers left the school, but afterwards the girl suffered name-calling and physical threats by other students who had heard rumors, the suit alleged. At the time of her arrest, Smothers had landed a teaching job at a high school in California.

Metro lawyers have not filed a formal response to the lawsuit, instead arguing proceeding with the civil case would be at odds with a simultaneous criminal case.

Police could not provide their investigative files during an ongoing criminal case, they argue. Smothers would be subject to questioning in the civil case. If she chose to answer those questions, she could risk implicating herself in a criminal case. If Smothers chose not to answer on Fifth Amendment grounds, that would frustrate the civil case, they argued. 

Michelle Michaud, a spokeswoman for the Nashville district has previously said “MNPS does have policies and procedures to ensure the safety of our students.”

The lawsuit is one of five filed against Metro schools since July that carry similar allegations: that Metro Schools failed to properly prevent, investigate and then protect girls from sexual harassment. Crofford represents the families in all five lawsuits.

The four other lawsuits involve allegations of student-on-student sexual violence in public schools.

More: Fourth sexual violence lawsuit filed against Nashville public schools

Each of the four other lawsuits also allege that the conduct was filmed, uploaded to the internet and circulated among students in a practice nicknamed “exposing.” They are: 

  • A lawsuit alleging that, in September, 2016, a 14-year-old Maplewood High School student was subjected to “unwelcome sexual contact” by an unspecified number of 18-year-old male students in a school stairwell while other students filmed the incident. The lawsuit was filed in August.
  • A second lawsuit involving the same incident was filed in September by the family of another 14-year-old girl. The lawsuit said both girls were victims of the same teenage boys. The two lawsuits were consolidated into one case in November. No trial date has yet been set.
  • A lawsuit filed in September alleging that 15-year-old female Hunters Lane High School student was pulled into an unlocked classroom in April and subjected to unwelcome sexual contact by a male student while a third student filmed the encounter. The case has been set for trial May 14, 2019.
  • A lawsuit filed in July alleging a different 15-year-old Hunters Lane High School student was taken into a men’s bathroom and pressured into sexual contact by a male student, who filmed the incident. That case is set for trial on Jan. 22, 2019. 

Reach Anita Wadhwani at awadhwani@tennessean.com; 615-259-8092 and on Twitter @AnitaWadhwani.

Reach Dave Boucher at dboucher@tennessean.com; 615-259-8892, and on twitter @Dave_Boucher1. 

 

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