Three former Cape Fear Academy students are suing the school for actions they said violated Title IX when the school allegedly failed to address reported ongoing sexual harassment, and instead retaliated against those reporting the incidents.
The students, whose identities were kept anonymous in the lawsuit, are asking for compensation in excess of $75,000 for emotional damages, deprivation of equal access to education, and other damages a jury sees fit.
A representative from Cape Fear Academy said in an emailed statement the stakes accusations such as these very seriously and is committed to providing students “with a superior educational experience in an environment free of harassment and other distractions.” The statement said students’ health, safety and emotional-well being is a priority for the school.
‘That sucks, but that’s the way the real world is’
Two of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, identified as Jane Doe and Jane Roe, were seniors at Cape Fear Academy during the 2020-21 school year. Jane Doe had attended the school since her freshman year and was the victim of bullying and harassment by male students, according to the complaint filed on Oct. 6 by Gary Shipman with Shipman & Wright LLP law firm.
Jane Roe attended the school from pre-K to her freshman year, then transferred to a different school, before returning to Cape Fear Academy for her senior year. While she was at the other school, Jane Roe was sexually assaulted and was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, according to the complaint.
During the 2020-21 school year, the complaint stated Jane Doe and Jane Roe reported experiencing bullying and sexual harassment by a group of male students. That included teasing, name calling, inappropriate sexual comments, and more.
At the time, Jane Roe was in an advanced placement literature class with many of these students. While discussing readings and assignments, the the complaint said those male students would “openly engage in class in misogynistic behavior toward female characters,” including laughing and joking about parts of the reading depicting physical or sexual violence toward women.
Because of this and her past experiences with sexual assault, the comments caused Jane Roe to experience anxiety, and she reported the behaviors to her counselor, Tobi Ragon. The lawsuit states Ragon told her “that sucks, but that’s the way the real world is,” and “Cape Fear is actually a lot better with this stuff than the schools around us.”
Jane Roe was seeing a therapist outside of school, who requested the school provide accommodations to her due to her anxiety in the class. The lawsuit alleges the solution the school provided her with was to do different assignments than the rest of the class, but did not take action against the students participating in the inappropriate behavior.
“Rather than dealing with the inappropriate conduct of the male students, Jane Roe, as a female student, was forced to work alone and review other materials than those being reviewed by the rest of her class,” the lawsuit states.
Later in the school year, Jane Roe continued having issues with sensitive material the class was reading and comments the male students would make during class discussions. The lawsuit alleges one student made a comment to the effect of “women getting raped and murdered, what’s wrong with that … tale as old as time.”
Jane Roe spoke with Ragon again about the male students who prevented herself and other female students “from enjoying the educational experience to which they were entitled.”
Rewarding the accused
Jane Doe, Jane Roe, and other female students began discussing similar behaviors they’d experienced from the boys, and decided to speak to Ragon and Dean of Students Jamison Fee about the sexual harassment, among other derogatory conduct. The administrators allegedly assured the group of girls they would take appropriate action against the male students and requested the girls send any documentation or evidence they had to support their complaints.
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But in early May, according to the complaint, the group of students found out several of the boys who had participated in the behaviors were selected as speakers at their upcoming graduation commencement ceremony. A group of around 15 girls, including Jane Doe and Jane Roe, began expressing concerns that the decision would “reward these male students’ completely inappropriate conduct.”
Fee again met with the students, who “laid out in graphic detail the sexually harassing, bullying and completely inappropriate conduct” the male students had engaged in, and said they did not believe the boys should be allowed to speak at graduation. Fee allegedly assured the girls their allegations would be investigated and appropriate action would be taken, then met with several of the girls, including Jane Doe, individually, but did not set up a meeting with Jane Roe.
Ten days later, the group of female students and some male students again met with Ragon to express concerns that the school had still not addressed the situation. During the meeting, they discussed an idea of creating a petition to get the boys taken off the list of graduation speakers, and Ragon and another faculty member said they thought a petition was a good idea, the lawsuit stated.
Around 20 students collaborated on drafting the petition. Jane Doe was not involved in writing it, but once it was finished, she posted it to the website change.com. The petition named the boys and said the class of 2021 did not feel the boys accurately represented the class as a whole, but did not directly outline the allegations against them. It said they would like to see class-elected students or teachers take their spots as speakers.
In a couple hours, the petition received 27 signatures before Lynne Kenny, head of Cape Fear Academy’s Upper School, allegedly demanded the petition be taken down.
Fee then requested another meeting with Jane Doe, and allegedly told her as the person who posted the petition online, she was “going to have to take the rap for it,” the lawsuit states. Fee asked her multiple times to provide the names of other students involved, but Jane Doe refused.
Jane Roe later tried to provide a list of those involved to Fee and Ragon, but was told it was too late. Fee continued refusing to meet with Jane Roe, the lawsuit stated.
“What was particularly disturbing about Jane Doe being summoned to (Fee’s) office less than 24 hours after the petition was posted is that Mr. Fee and others at CFA were in possession of the allegations of sex-based harassment and bullying … for more than three weeks, yet undertook no action to cause the (harassment) to stop,” according to the lawsuit.
Retaliation against Jane and Jill
Jane Doe was later notified she would have to go before the school’s Honor Council to determine punishment for her actions. The Honor Council, made up of students, typically only sees students who have committed a “major infraction” of the school’s handbook. The lawsuit argues Jane Doe never committed a major infraction, defined in the handbook as something that disrupts the learning environment or has the potential to jeopardize the safety of students.
“In fact, what (the students) did was an attempt to restore the learning environment at CFA,” the lawsuit says.
Jane Doe’s parents, named in the lawsuit as John and Sally Doe, attempted to meet with the school’s administration but were assured by Kenny to “trust in the system.”
John and Sally Doe were not permitted to attend the Honor Council meeting, and Jane Doe was instead escorted to it by Ragon. During the meeting, she read a letter from her private counselor, which detailed the treatment Jane Doe said she had undergone by the male students and its impact on her emotional health.
The council determined no action should be taken against Jane Doe, and the male students should be disciplined. The council chair then provided a report of their decision to the school’s administration.
Despite the decision made by the Honor Council, Kenny still decided Jane Doe would be required to write an apology to the boys named in the petition. If she did not complete the apologies, she would not be allowed to attend her Salute to Senior or graduation ceremony.
Jane Doe determined she would not write an apology to the boys. Her parents supported her in the decision and notified the school. She was not allowed to attend her high school graduation and her name was reportedly not mentioned during the ceremony “as if she never existed at CFA,” the lawsuit states. Her diploma was later mailed to her.
“(The action) was completely unwarranted and disproportionate to anything that Jane Doe had allegedly done,” she lawsuit said, noting Jane Doe had no history of disciplinary action at the school. “This retaliation against Jane Doe had achieved the intended effect — to frighten and intimidate female CFA students who experienced ‘student on student’ sexual harassment and bullying to not report it.”
Less than a month later, John and Sally Doe received notification their younger daughter, Jill Doe, would not be permitted to return to the school for her junior year, noting actions taken by the parents impeded a constructive relationship with the school as they failed to support and cooperate with the school’s disciplinary action against Jane Doe.
Because the parents were notified in June, it was too late for Jill Doe to enroll in a different private school or even in advanced placement classes at a public school. She is now attending a public school where she has few friends and was placed in classes that had openings, a significant difference from her curriculum at Cape Fear Academy.
“The life that she knew prior to June 4, 2021, has been completely disrupted, and she has been alienated from her friends at CFA,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit states Jane Doe and Jill Doe’s records have been “irrevocably and irreversibly tarnished,” compromising their ability to apply for future colleges and graduate schools.
Sending the message ‘adults don’t care’
The lawsuit argues all of this violated Title IX, which protects students from gender-based discrimination. It says the school has an obligation under Title IX to make sure all employees have adequate training on what constitutes sexual harassment and requires the school to prevent and remedy sexual and gender-based harassment.
It alleges the school’s action and inaction caused the students to undergo sex-based harassment and ultimately “deprived them of access to educational opportunities and benefits.”
The academy’s handbook states it is “dedicated to fostering an environment that promotes kindness, acceptance and embraces differences among individuals,” and therefore will not tolerate bullying or harassment. It advises students to immediately report bullying and harassment to a trusted adult to make a plan to stop the bullying, and that the staff would be emotionally supportive of victims of bullying or harassment.
But the lawsuit argues that didn’t happen in the case of Jane Doe, Jane Roe and other students harassed by the male students.
“CFA would ultimately ignore those policies, intentionally sending … the message that ‘adults don’t care,’ and worse, that if a CFA student dared to complain and speak out about being the victim of bullying and harassment, it would be the victims that would face consequences,” according to the complaint.
Reporter Sydney Hoover can be reached at 910-343-2339 or email@example.com.