District of Columbia Sued for Failure to Serve People with Disabilities During Disasters
A team of Drinker Biddle & Reath lawyers from the Washington office is partnering with a team of lawyers from the Disability Rights Advocates and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs to represent United Spinal Association and the DC Center for Independent Living, as well as three individuals. The class is suing the District of Columbia and Mayor Vincent Gray for the District’s poor emergency planning for persons with disabilities. United Spinal v. District of Columbia(U.S.D.C. for District of Columbia)
As alleged in the Complaint filed on September 9, 2014, the District of Columbia’s emergency planning violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the D.C. Human Rights Act because of the District’s failure to publicize any information about accessible emergency shelters, failure to plan for emergency communications to persons who are deaf and blind, failure to put accessible evacuation options in place, and failure to plan for supply chain disruptions for medication and replacement durable medical equipment. The lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief requiring the District to develop and implement an emergency preparedness program that addresses the needs of persons with disabilities during emergencies.
The parties are engaged currently in settlement discussions and are working diligently toward resolving the issues raised by the class action complaint. The parties agreed to work with a mediator approved by the court, and conducted their first session with the mediator in February 2015. Since then, the parties have continued to meet to discuss the steps being taken by the District, the substance of the plans, and the involvement of people with disabilities in D.C. in the planning and implementation. The District reported that it has now completed its assessment of its emergency shelters for purposes of ensuring all are accessible to disabled persons and is working to implement changes that may be necessary. The District is also nearing completion of a draft of a new emergency preparedness plan designed to accommodate the needs of the District’s disabled citizens, and will be sharing the draft with plaintiffs’ counsel for their comments and input.
Update on the litigation at year-end 2017: The parties continue to mediate and are making great strides towards protecting the need of people with disabilities in D.C.
School Sexual Assault Case: Richards v. Williamson County Board of Education
On May 8, 2015, Barbara McDowell High Impact Litigation Project client Dallas Richards accepted a $100,000 offer of judgment in her sexual assault and bullying case brought against the Williamson County School System (Tennessee) in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee.
Ms. Richards had stopped attending a public high school in Williamson County, Tennessee, because school officials failed to take appropriate steps to protect her from sexual harassment and assault by a male student with a known history of violence and sexual misconduct. Ms. Richards endured several assaults before withdrawing from the high school, and was psychologically traumatized as a result. The suit was filed against the school district under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funds.
In 2013, while Ms. Richards was a senior at Independence High School, she was physically and sexually assaulted several times by Michael Alexander, a special education student with a history of violent behavior who was required to be supervised at all times by a faculty member or aide, pursuant to his Individualized Education Program. Prior to enrolling Mr. Alexander at the high school for the 2012-13 academic year, a law enforcement officer advised school officials that Mr. Alexander posed a safety risk to students. Mr. Alexander had been expelled from a previous private school for sexually harassing female students. Prior to that, while attending a middle school in the district, he had violently attacked both female and male students. The school board was aware of Mr. Alexander’s history before he sexually assaulted Ms. Richards.
The first assault took place in the school gym. Mr. Alexander grabbed Ms. Richards from behind and groped her breasts. Ms. Richards immediately reported the incident to a teacher and a coach who was supposed to be supervising Mr. Alexander. The school did not discipline Mr. Alexander or take any other remedial action.
The next series of attacks took place in the school’s athletic training room. Again, Mr. Alexander was left unsupervised. Ms. Richards was seated on a training table, when Mr. Alexander grabbed her and began to lick her leg and back. Ms. Richards yelled at Mr. Alexander to stop, and a male student in the room intervened, pushing Mr. Alexander off Ms. Richards. Mr. Alexander left the training room, but returned a bit later. He charged at Ms. Richards, grabbing her around the waist and legs. When she screamed, he wrapped his hands around her throat and began to choke her, then licked her face. This time it took two male students in the room to pull Mr. Alexander off Ms. Richards. Mr. Alexander then grabbed one of the male students by the hair and pulled him around, before exiting the room. Mr. Alexander returned to the training room a third time, and was even more violent. He grabbed Ms. Richards and tried to lick her buttocks. When she tried to free herself from his grip, he lifted her in the air, grabbing one of her breasts with one hand, and pushing his other hand in her vaginal and buttocks area. Ms. Richards screamed and he then dropped her on a training table. The school’s personal trainer overhead the screaming, entered the training room, and stopped Mr. Alexander’s attack.
Ms. Richards reported this series of attacks to several coaches. She also told her parents, who then met with the school’s principal, assistant principal, and special needs counselor. The parents expressed their concerns about the multiple attacks on their daughter and the school’s lack of supervision for Mr. Alexander. Mr. Alexander was suspended from school for five days. However, when he returned, he continued to walk the school’s halls unsupervised and verbally harassed Ms. Richards each time he saw her. Despite Ms. Richards and her parents’ complaints about this, the school took no action to protect Ms. Richards from the continuing harassment or to ensure that Mr. Alexander was supervised.
As a result of having to transfer to another high school in the midst of her senior year, Ms. Richards was also deprived of access to a number of educational benefits. She was unable to complete scholastic and extracurricular activities, including sports and serving as a buddy to special needs children. She was also unable graduate with a diploma in Criminal Studies, the discipline she had been pursuing, because it wasn’t offered at her new school.
The judgment covers almost all of Ms. Richards’ claimed damages. Ms. Richards was very happy with the result and relieved that her courage in taking this stand will inure to the benefit of both victims within the Williamson County school system as well as others across the country who have had to endure such personal assaults to their person and dignity.