An Isidore Newman School student who reported in 2017 that a classmate sexually assaulted her was bullied and shamed by a group of students, parents and donors, according to thousands of pages of newly unsealed records in a lawsuit against the school.
The lawsuit, filed in 2018 against the student’s alma mater and the family of the classmate she accused of assault, has been entirely sealed since its inception. U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael North changed that late Wednesday, after the plaintiff and The Times-Picayune | The Advocate argued that it was in the public’s interest to open up the court filings.
The case is set for a jury trial to begin Oct. 17.
Years’ worth of court filings show that Newman was engulfed in controversy over the 2017 case. Several parents threatened to donate only $1 to Newman’s annual giving campaign if the school didn’t support the plaintiff’s classmate, who later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual battery. Court filings say that some students wore buttons and carried cardboard cutouts of the accused assailant’s face to support him at school events while the plaintiff suffered.
The plaintiff argues that Newman’s response to her sexual assault report should not have been a surprise because Newman, she contends, has a long history of failing to properly respond to reports of sexual misconduct on campus.
Her lawsuit alleges that Newman’s handling of her case will result in her to “forever, and wrongly, be regarded as that girl who falsely accused [the defendant], the girl who — as one parent repeatedly screamed at [the plaintiff] during JazzFest 2018 — ‘made it all up.’”
Newman’s attorneys have argued that the school cannot be responsible for the actions of parents who campaigned against the plaintiff at off-campus events. They said the school has required sexual misconduct training for employees, and that officials took steps to protect the plaintiff after she reported her assault.
“When the incident was finally known to Newman in October 2017, Newman immediately took action, reported the incident to police authorities, retained ‘internationally prominent labor and employment law firms’ to investigate the incident,” according to court filings on behalf of Newman. “Thus, Newman acted quickly and in stark contrast to plaintiff’s own parents who sat on the alleged incident for ten months.”
An attorney for Newman, Harry Rosenberg, declined to comment Friday.
Emily Bomersback, Newman’s director of communications, said school officials would not comment on the lawsuit.
“We are actively contesting the lawsuit and want to emphasize our continued commitment to gender equity and non-discrimination for all Newman students,” she added.
NOPD, law firm investigated report
The incident that would set off the yearslong legal battle happened in late 2016, when a group of Newman students were hanging out off campus a few days after Christmas. The female student alleged in police records that her classmate made multiple sexual advances toward her that night, and eventually followed her into a bathroom and penetrated her with his fingers without her consent.
For months afterward, the students stayed quiet about what happened.
But in October 2017, another student wrote about the incident in response to an essay prompt about something she was ashamed of, according to the lawsuit. The details of the essay are redacted in the court filings, but the lawsuit says that the female student’s mother later identified her daughter as having been referenced in the essay assignment.
The female student and her family then participated in a New Orleans Police Department investigation and a separate investigation Newman commissioned. She and the defendant were 17 at the time of the incident, though he was arrested at age 18.
Newman hired the law firm Ogletree Deakins to perform the school’s investigation; that firm spent several days interviewing students. In December 2017, Newman’s Head of School Dale Smith told the plaintiff’s family that the investigation concluded, and that her version of events was credible, and that the male student’s denial was not credible, according to court filings. He then asked the family to keep quiet about the investigation and its results, their lawsuit says.
The male student was placed on academic leave, and Smith told the female student’s family that he would be “permanently separated” from Newman and would not graduate, the lawsuit states.
Jeers from students, threats from parents
But the end of the investigation did not spell the end of the controversy.
“By November 17, 2017, students began visibly joining the anti-[plaintiff] movement, showing up at Newman wearing buttons bearing the likeness of [the defendant], chanting ‘free [the defendant]’ and brandishing Fatheads and banners at school,” the court filings state.
Meanwhile, pressure mounted on the female student’s family and on Newman. Her parents received calls from other classmates’ parents; one parent told them the incident would ‘divide the senior class,’ while another said it would be ‘best for all concerned if you dropped this investigation.’”
By February 2018, Newman received a five-page letter from an anonymous group of parents who backed the male defendant and who questioned the investigation’s credibility.
“Instead of holding Newman in the highest regard as an academic institution, we now hear people using words such as ‘inept,’ ‘unfair’ and ‘misguided’ to describe the school we all love,” the letter stated. “These sentiments are being expressed in a number of ways, including a movement by certain former supporters of the school to donate only a single dollar to this year’s Annual Fund.”
The female student’s attorneys allege that the threats worked. The male defendant was eventually allowed back on campus for various events, according to the court filings.
In March 2018, Newman officials told the plaintiff’s family that the school also had developed concerns about the investigation, the court filings state. The family alleges they were presented with two options: either the school would open a new probe, or the plaintiff and defendant’s family would have to mediate.
But while the plaintiff’s family eventually agreed to a second investigation, Newman abandoned that course, the lawsuit states. Instead, they announced an “optimal resolution” of giving the defendant a Newman diploma, allowing him to become an official alumnus of the school.
The female student graduated and moved away.
Title IX claims hang in the balance
The court’s docket shows the plaintiff reached a confidential settlement with the male defendant’s family in 2020, meaning the only legal conflict that remains is with the plaintiff and Newman.
Key among the plaintiff’s claims is that Newman breached its obligations under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits institutions from discriminating based on sex. The law requires campuses to report and investigate allegations of sexual misconduct and domestic violence involving students.
Newman previously argued that it was not subject to Title IX at the time of the sexual assault report.
The female student has sought to unseal her lawsuit against Newman multiple times, the case docket shows. She filed motions to unseal the case in 2019 and again in August 2021, which Newman opposed both times.
The Times-Picayune | The Advocate intervened in the lawsuit late last year, arguing against the decision to seal the entirety of the suit rather than redact individual documents on a case-by-case basis.
North ordered the lawsuit unsealed in April but instructed attorneys to first substitute court records with redacted versions to protect the privacy of minors. Those court filings are now being made public.