FAYETTEVILLE — An agreement to settle a federal lawsuit against Huntsville Public Schools on behalf of a student basketball player who was abused by older boys, is in the boy’s best interest and acceptable to the court, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks said in late August that he wanted to review a U.S. Supreme Court ruling about damages for emotional distress before deciding whether to approve a settlement in a Title IX sexual harassment lawsuit against the school district in Madison County.
The Supreme Court ruled earlier this year victims of discrimination prohibited by four federal statutes may not sue for damages if the only harm was emotional distress.
Joey McCutchen, attorney for the boy, identified in court documents as B.N., said the Supreme Court ruling limited damages in the case to “actual economic damages,” and B.N. incurred minimal economic damages.
McCutchen offered to waive his attorney fees and to settle the case for $1 if the Huntsville School Board would admit liability in the case and see that all teachers and administrative staff got Title IX training, which the school board voted unanimously to do in a meeting July 25.
“The court finds the settlement agreement’s award of nominal damages while not completely compensating B.N.’s pecuniary injuries–is reasonable,” Brooks wrote.
He noted other terms of the settlement agreement are also in the boy’s best interests.
“Moreover, the School District’s admission of guilt and Title IX training are benefits that serve the interests B.N. sought to vindicate by bringing this lawsuit,” Brooks wrote. “Settling this matter now to avoid an emotionally fraught trial — that cannot result in any significant damages award — also benefits B.N.”
Brooks gave the sides until Friday to file a joint motion to dismiss the case.
Rebecca Nelle filed the lawsuit on behalf of her son Sept. 10, 2021, saying the School District knew students on the boys middle school basketball team were being sexually harassed and sexually assaulted by older boys and did little or nothing to stop it. School officials maintained they first learned of the locker-room incidents in February 2021.
Nelle’s lawsuit cites Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which ensures all students — male and female — have access to and equality in education. It offers a wide range of protection related to athletics, admission, housing and sexual harassment, among others.
The suit alleges federal Title IX violations arising from deliberate indifference to and actual knowledge of sexual harassment and sexual assault of multiple students; from the district’s failure to promptly and properly investigate reports of sexual harassment; and from a hostile education environment that denied B.N. and other students access to educational opportunities.
According to the suit, ninth-grade players on the team would “engage in forcible sexual assault” by holding an eighth-grade team member down while others assaulted him.
According to a “Title IX Sexual Harassment Determination of Responsibility” report completed after the internal investigation, the accused players had placed their “genitals in the faces” of several eighth- and ninth-grade boys who were being restrained by other boys in the locker room after games. The practice — called “baptism” — occurred several times during the basketball season, as well as the previous year, according to the report.
Two boys admitted to “baptizing” other players, according to the report. They were ultimately expelled from school for a semester.
Other boys were cited in the report as helping restrain the victims while they were being “baptized.” Because they are underage and students, none of the boys’ names were used in the report.
Charles Harwell, the school district’s attorney, said earlier two Title IX investigations had been done regarding the Huntsville School District and they involved “two dozen” students, counting both victims and perpetrators.
At least 17 middle school or high school players were victimized and at least one student paid another student not to abuse him, according to an amended complaint.