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A $10 million federal lawsuit filed in December against Cleveland City Schools claims a female student was repeatedly sexually assaulted by another student at Cleveland Middle School while school officials looked the other way.

The suit contends the student's parents had no idea anything had happened to their daughter until the Tennessee Department of Children's Services contacted them days afterward while school officials remained mum.

The suit seeks $5 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. It calls the school system's actions in the incidents "deliberate indifference to extreme student-on-student sexual harassment, sexual assault and bullying," according to the suit filed by Monteagle, Tennessee, attorney Russell L. Leonard on Dec. 11 in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga.

The plaintiffs in the suit are dubbed anonymously as "Jane Doe" and her parents "Janet Doe" and "John Doe," and the suit names as defendants the Cleveland City Schools Board of Education, Cleveland Middle School, its principal, vice principal, school resource officer, sixth-grade counselor, and the student's homeroom and math teachers.

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Read the lawsuit filed against Cleveland City Schools, officials

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"The action alleges violations of Title IX, denial of equal protection of the laws under the [14th] Amendment to the United State Constitution and violation of state tort laws," the suit states. Tort laws refer to intentional or unintentional damage incurred by one person or party from another person or party, according to a Nashville Bar Association definition.

The school system issued a statement acknowledging the suit but didn't directly respond to its allegations.

"We were recently advised of a complaint that was filed against Cleveland City Schools in federal court. Although the local rules in federal court do not permit the School System to comment on active and pending legal matters at this time, we want to assure everyone in the community that we will do everything in our power to seriously investigate and respond to all of the claims and issues that have been raised by the Plaintiffs in this matter. The School System has retained Jonathan Taylor and his law firm of Taylor & Knight to lead this investigation and vigorously defend the Cleveland City Schools and all of its employees in this matter," reads a statement issued by Cleveland City Schools spokesperson Julie Smith.

Taylor said Wednesday he was unable to make a detailed public statement "other than to note that my clients are prepared to vigorously defend themselves against the facts and claims set forth in the complaint that was recently filed by the anonymous Doe plaintiffs in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee."

According to the suit, the female student's mother received a call at work in late September 2019 from the Tennessee Department of Children's Services asking for a meeting "to discuss the safety of Jane Doe," her daughter. No concerns had been raised previously to the mother, so she was unaware of what was to be discussed. The girl's stepfather and biological father attended the meeting as well, the suit states.

During the meeting the children's services official started referring to an assault on school premises that happened the week prior on Sept. 18, 2019, and the family told the state official they were unaware of the incident, the suit states.

Another student reported the assault, that official told the family, and the alleged assailant had been to juvenile court and placed in Raider Academy, an alternative school, the suit states. The children's services official told the family the suspected assailant "sexually assaulted" the girl and "threatened the other children who had witnessed the misconduct with physical violence should they disclose what they had witnessed."

That was the first the girl's parents had heard of a "sexual" assault. The suit states the children's services official told family members the girl was also required by school officials to write out a statement on what happened without her parents or a guardian present.

"The very next day, Janet and John Doe received a Mutual No Contact Order," the suit states. "They had no knowledge as to the reason for its issuance."

The parents learned the order had been issued Sept. 19, 2019, prior to the family being notified that an assault had happened, the suit states. The parents also learned that the assault "was done forcefully, with Jane Doe being shoved up against a locker, molested and brutalized, resulting in physical injuries from which Jane Doe had to recover more than a week after the assault," the suit states. "Her psychological injuries remain with her and shall remain for the foreseeable future."

The family still hadn't been contacted by school officials and the girl continued to express fear of assault at school, the suit contends.

Then in November 2019 the girl's parents were contacted by school officials in an email that said their daughter was failing all her classes and was "not trying" in class. A meeting was needed, the suit states. This meeting, the family contends, was the first time school officials acknowledged an assault.

That still wasn't the end of revelations, the suit contends.

During a December 2019 juvenile court hearing for the suspected assailant, an assistant district attorney told the court an order would be issued regarding the suspected assailant's counseling "especially considering this was not the first time the assailant had sexually assaulted 'Jane,'" the suit states.

"This was the first time Janet and John Doe were made aware that, not only had their daughter been sexually assaulted and [Cleveland Middle School] had concealed the same, their daughter had been sexually assaulted by the same assailant multiple times," the suit states.

After the hearing, the girl was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the suit states.

Again, that still wasn't the end of surprises for the family, according to the suit.

"Shockingly, on Oct. 19, 2020, frantic and emotionally distraught, Jane Doe placed a call to John Doe, stating [school officials] had placed her assailant in the very same class as Jane Doe, resulting in further emotional trauma, forcing her to relive the events of the past while fearing another sexual assault," the suit states. "These defendants had actual knowledge of the multiple sexual assaults, and deliberately turned an indifferent eye to pervasive, repeated, egregious and foreseeable sexual assaults of this child."

In additional to the $10 million sought for compensatory and punitive damages, the suit also seeks unspecified payment for emotional suffering by the girl and her parents, a private education and attorneys' fees, according to the court document.

Federal court records show the last action in the case occurring on Jan. 20 when Taylor, the defendants' attorney, filed a motion seeking more time for the plaintiffs to answer the Doe complaint. The motion seeks to postpone the deadline for the answer to Feb. 22, records show.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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