WILMINGTON –– A federal lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of N.C. describes a series of retaliatory moves taken against female students by administrators at Cape Fear Academy, following the revelation of alleged bullying and sexual harassment by fellow male students.
After administrators failed to take action against a group of male students who had allegedly partaken in bullying and harassing behavior, and were later selected to speak at a commencement ceremony, more than a dozen students drafted a petition to request their removal as speakers, the suit claims. The student who posted the petition (but did not personally help draft it) to Change.org was banned from attending her own graduation ceremony because she refused to apologize to the three male students named.
Her sister –– then a sophomore uninvolved in the controversy among the graduating class –– was removed from the school’s rolls the week following commencement. She had attended Cape Fear Academy since middle school and was forced to find a new school for her junior year. Her parents had already signed an enrollment contract with Cape Fear Academy for the upcoming school year.
Tuition at the private nonprofit costs $20,200 annually at the high school level.
“Cape Fear Academy takes allegations of this nature quite seriously,” the school’s spokesperson provided in a statement Thursday. Though it would like to respond to the allegations, because the suit touches on matters involving students, Cape Fear Academy cannot offer specific comments on the claims due to federal law, the statement continued.
“However, we remain committed to providing all our students with a superior educational experience in an environment free of harassment and other distractions, and we will continue to prioritize their health, safety, and emotional well-being,” the statement concluded.
The suit claims violations of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits unequal access to educational opportunities on the basis of sex. Typically, as a private school, Cape Fear Academy would not be compelled to follow Title IX. However, the school accepted $1.25 million in Paycheck Protection Program forgiveness loans in April. Title IX kicks in if an educational service or program receives federal funds.
“If this were any other year, and we hadn’t been in a pandemic … and Cape Fear Academy had not applied for and obtained a PPP loan, they would not be the recipient of federal funds, therefore, Title IX doesn’t apply,” said Gary Shipman, lead counsel on the case and managing partner of Shipman & Wright LLP.
If CFA hadn’t accepted federal funds, the girls would still have a case, Shipman said. It just wouldn’t have been filed in federal court.
The plaintiffs in the case are all anonymous –– a move Shipman said he took to protect their privacy but that a court could later compel them to reveal.
It involves Jane Doe, the 18-year-old senior banned from graduation for posting the petition, her sister Jill Doe, the 16-year-old rising junior whose enrollment contract was terminated, their parents, and Jane’s friend, Jane Roe, another senior.
Roe had been sexually assaulted at a boarding school before attending CFA and suffered from PTSD. In an AP literature class, Roe brought concerns about misogynistic behavior of her fellow male classmates to CFA’s counselor. Instead of administrators dealing with the male students, they proposed Roe be assigned different material than the rest of the class, for her to read on her own while staying out of class for two weeks.
Toward the end of the year, Roe objected to a short story involving a 15-year-old girl who was stalked, kidnapped, raped and murdered. Her teacher told her it was important for her to read it and participate in class, according to the suit. The topic “further emboldened” some male students, with one making an inappropriate joke about nothing being wrong with women being raped and murdered, which was “met with thunderous laughter” from other male students in the class, the suit details. Roe experienced near-daily panic attacks as a result of the harassing behavior.
Multiple female students, including Roe and her friend Jane Doe, presented the boys’ behavior to CFA’s counselor. They shared evidence of social media bullying, instances of racially derogatory remarks, and sexual harassment.
Nothing was done by administrators to confront the boys’ behavior, the suit alleges, aside from Roe standing up for herself in class.
When some of the problematic male students were chosen to speak at an upcoming graduation ceremony, over a dozen female students vocally objected to the decision, seeing the selection as rewarding inappropriate behavior. One of the boys chosen had allegedly sexually assaulted a fellow female student. Their objections went weeks without any action as graduation neared, despite administrators assuring the girls they were investigating the matter.
At least two staff members, including the counselor and a teacher, told the complaining female students that starting a petition would be a good idea. The counselor even told Doe she wouldn’t attend graduation if the boys were permitted to speak on stage, the suit claims.
More than 20 male and female students collaborated to draft a petition, which stated in part: “The senior class feels [certain identified male students] do not deserve speaking roles in these events. The group feels these students have caused harm to fellow CFA students and would be setting a bad example for our school community.”
It had 27 signatures within two hours but was promptly taken down. Jane Doe did not write or collaborate in drafting the petition but did post it online, the suit claims.
Doe was summoned to a hearing before the school’s honor council for allegedly violating the student handbook for publishing “material intended to harm or slander another person.”
The council of students ruled she had not violated the student handbook and that the named boys should be disciplined, according to the suit. Despite this recommendation, the upper school director informed Doe she must apologize to each boy in writing or she would not be permitted to attend her graduation ceremonies.
Doe refused, believing she had nothing to apologize for. Her parents supported her decision.
On graduation day, Doe wasn’t allowed to attend. No mention of her was made, though other students who could not attend in person for various reasons were celebrated in their absence.
“It’s been pretty disturbing. The whole thing that is just so tragic is it’s as if Jane Doe never went to that school, like she never existed,” Shipman said. “Like she disappeared off the face of the earth, like she never existed. I’ve tried to imagine that empty feeling that I’d have if I were her.”
The following week CFA’s administrator informed the Doe’s parents that Jane’s sister, Jill, was no longer a student. Jill’s enrollment contract was terminated on the basis that CFA could renege on the deal if it determines in its “sole discretion that the actions of a parent impede a constructive relationship or otherwise materially interfere with its accomplishment of its mission.”
CFA’s handbook is firm on bullying and harassment. Under threat of disciplinary action, students are mandated to report instances of bullying and harassment immediately to administrators. “If they had followed their own policy, we wouldn’t be having any discussions,” Shipman said.
“Everything that we have alleged, factually, it happened. Period. And just the facts –– not that I forget about law, because I think it violates the law, but the facts are awful. They’re awful.”
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