NWHS

Niagara-Wheatfield High School

New York Attorney General Letitia James has filed a lawsuit against the Niagara-Wheatfield Central School District for failing to respond to incidents of sexual assault and bullying in the schools.

The legal action follows an investigation launched by the Office of the Attorney General in 2019, which found that Niagara-Wheatfield deliberately ignored student complaints of rape, assault, sexual harassment, and gender-based bullying, and took no action to protect them from their assailants and harassers, leading several students to drop out of school and lose access to educational opportunities. The lawsuit alleges that district officials repeatedly violated the federal Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and New York state common law, requiring that schools provide adequate supervision of their students to protect them from harm.

James’ lawsuit seeks oversight, monitoring, and the creation and implementation of new procedures for the school district and all of its schools to better address the handling of sexual assault.

“It is unconscionable that an institution tasked with educating and protecting its students turned a blind eye to the abuse, harassment, and bullying happening right in its school halls,” James said in a release. “(Niagara-Wheatfield's) inaction demonstrates that it did not have adequate systems in place to protect its students — particularly young women — when they needed it most. This indifference to student suffering has caused physical, mental, and emotional trauma, and jeopardized students’ education. My office remains committed to standing against sexual assault of any kind, anywhere, and ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all New Yorkers. I will continue to use the law to hold the school district accountable for its negligence, and to empower survivors of sexual harassment and assault.”

A former high school student, identified as TG by James' office, said district officials failed her three years ago after she was raped by a fellow classmate.

"Their negligence and active disregard for my well-being only deepened my pain and suffering. In the time since, they have repeatedly tried to intimidate and silence me,” the student said in the release. "Today, with this lawsuit, I feel a glimmer of hope. It is time to ensure Niagara Wheatfield does not fail another student in the way they failed me. Thank you, Attorney General James, for taking a stand and joining me in this fight. I will not be silenced.”

Federal law guarantees all students the right to a public education, and it provides that they shall not be deprived of this most basic right on the basis of sex. To that end, Title IX specifically requires that schools take steps to protect students from gender-based harassment and sexual assault that create a hostile educational environment and deprive students of educational opportunities.

The attorney general’s investigation into Niagara-Wheatfield began after media reports detailed how the district did nothing in response to the rape of "TG" by a fellow student in May 2018. "TG" was forced to attend school with her assailant for the year following her rape. Even after the assailant pleaded guilty to third-degree rape, he was still allowed to remain in school, and was told he could attend prom and graduation. Niagara-Wheatfield school officials finally expelled him in May 2019, but only in response to the nationwide public and media attention brought by a student walkout organized to protest the school’s inaction. The school district also took no action against the students that bullied "TG" over her rape, but instead punished several students for participating in the walkout.

After a year of interim probation, the former Niagara-Wheatfield student was granted youthful offender status and placed on 10 years probation for his conviction for third-degree rape on Dec. 1, 2020.

Niagara-Wheatfield Principal Michael Mann, who was placed on leave after coming under criticism for the handling of the rape involving the two students tendered his resignation in 2019.

The attorney general's investigation found that on multiple occasions, Niagara-Wheatfield did not protect students from harassment and bullying, affecting the overall school climate and harming students for a period of years. In the last several years, there have been more than 30 documented incidents of sex discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault, or gender-based bullying at Niagara-Wheatfield, yet district officials never created a single written safety plan, nor took any documented effort to keep students safe following these reports of rape, physical or sexual assault, or harassment. As a direct result of the hostile environment cultivated by Niagara-Wheatfield, at least two students dropped out of school.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, seeks injunctive relief, including oversight, monitoring, and trainings for NWCSD, and the creation of new policies and practices for the handling of sexual assault, including a written safety plan for victims of harassment and assault.

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