Case Type: Criminal/Sexual Violence Litigation
Organization: The Waterford School
Salt Lake City, UT, Aug. 3, 2020 – Attorneys from Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP, together with local counsel Ferbrache Law, today filed a lawsuit on behalf of Tabitha Bell against The Waterford School. The case brought by the former student was filed in Utah’s Third District Court in Salt Lake County. The complaint alleges the elite private school refused to implement safeguards to protect Tabitha’s safety at the institution, including ignoring bullying and shunning by other students, tolerating consistent mistreatment by faculty and turning a blind eye to a traumatic rape by a male classmate with a known history of sexual harassment and physical violence. Tabitha has a rare form of muscular dystrophy known as Charcot Marie Tooth (CMT) disease, which affects her balance, limits her mobility and affects her general physical functioning.
Tabitha is represented in the matter by Sanford Heisler Sharp partner Steven J. Kelly and senior litigation counsel Christine Dunn, Criminal/Sexual Violence Practice Group Co-Chairs, Deborah K. Marcuse, Managing Partner of Sanford Heisler Sharp’s Baltimore office and Utah local counsel Gregory Ferbrache of Ferbrache Law in Salt Lake City.
“This suit involves a series of extremely egregious and entirely preventable physical and emotional injuries endured by a vulnerable student with a serious physical disability,” said Kelly. “In my many years of representing victims of sexual violence, Waterford’s treatment of Tabitha is one of the worst institutional responses to a report of sexual assault I have ever seen.”
Tabitha and her parents relocated to Utah in 2013, as she was entering eighth grade, so she could attend Waterford, which charged some $25,000 in annual tuition and boasted of being a “world-class liberal arts private school.” According to the filing, Waterford was aware of and clearly understood Tabitha’s medical issues and promised the family they would accommodate her needs. However, that did not happen. Instead the school failed to take action to prevent her from physical harm, including taking no action when students and faculty bullied her and treated her like a criminal. Waterford even tried to force her to leave school in her senior year after she reported being raped by a male classmate because the school said her status as a sexual assault survivor made others “uncomfortable”.
“I came to Waterford wanting the opportunity to get an exceptional liberal arts education in a place where I could thrive despite my physical challenges,” Tabitha said. “Almost from the start I realized that Waterford wanted only to use me as a token disability poster-child, without actually accommodating my physical limitations. Even though my high school years were not what I had hoped for, I am motivated to obtain justice for myself, hold Waterford School accountable for its actions, and improve conditions at Waterford for future disabled students and sexual assault victims.”
By any standards, Waterford consistently failed to protect Tabitha, yet the school often used her as a poster child for disability inclusion in its marketing and recruiting materials.
The school consistently failed to take reasonable precautions to keep Tabitha safe. In December 2015, Tabitha was knocked to the floor by a visibly drunk student at the school’s winter dance at which security staff was promised but not provided. As a result of the school’s lack of adequate supervision, Tabitha suffered a concussion, developed complications and ended up in the hospital for eight days. Rather than address the problem, the school threatened to make things difficult for Tabitha if she complained. In the fallout from the dance Tabitha began to be bullied mercilessly by her peers, leading to damaging social isolation. In one egregious instance, two boys simulated Tabitha’s rape on stage in front of the entire school. Rather than adequately punish the boys, the school singled them out for an end-of-year award and inducted them into the Cum Laude Honor Society, the school’s highest honor. Although her family made efforts to communicate their concerns to Waterford, the school took no action to address or stop other students’ harmful ostracizing behaviors targeting Tabitha.
According to the complaint, these examples are not isolated incidents: throughout her time as a student, Waterford was unwilling to take the precautions necessary to ensure her safety and ensure that she had full access to school events and activities. In one of the most appalling examples of the school’s indifference to her disability, Tabitha had to rely on other students to carry her up and down the stage stairs at the school’s choir performances. The choir director regularly refused to allow her to use the handicap accessible entrance or use her support dog on stage because it “ruined the look” of the choir.
In November 2017, Tabitha was subjected to even more egregious and physically and emotionally damaging behavior when a male lacrosse player at Waterford whom she counted among her few friends raped her at her home. When she told her parents about the sexual assault, they called the police and Tabitha cooperated in a police investigation. She and her parents subsequently learned the rapist had a history of aggressive, sexually inappropriate behavior – including previously threatening another female student at Waterford with sexual violence. The school was aware of the student’s violent past, but did nothing to warn Tabitha or her parents.
When her parents informed Waterford about Tabitha’s rape, Waterford did nothing to safeguard Tabitha from her rapist, requiring her parents to secure a protective order to prevent the rapist from contacting her on campus. In the wake of Tabitha’s report of the rape, students and faculty at the school escalated their bullying and school administrators directed other students not to speak to her and allowed her rapist, who had already graduated, access to the school campus despite the protective order.
“Although the school promised this young girl and her family its campus would be a haven where she could safely learn while receiving appropriate support and resources, Tabitha’s five-year tenure there was consistently traumatic and damaging,” said Marcuse. “Waterford’s conduct can never be reversed and the detrimental effects it has had on Tabitha will likely impact her adversely for the rest of her life.”
Despite all this, Tabitha persevered at Waterford and graduated in 2018. She is currently a student at University of California Berkeley, although she has continued to experience emotional distress as a consequence of her traumatic five years at Waterford.
“Because Waterford does not accept federal funds, which would subject it to the requirements of Title IX and the Americans With Disabilities Act, it seems to believe it can shirk its responsibilities to its students. However, under Utah state law, common law and the school’s own policies, Waterford must be held accountable for protecting its students,” said Dunn. “The school completely ignored these responsibilities.”
The complaint alleges Waterford is liable for negligence and breach of its duty of care; premises liability; negligent supervision of its faculty and students; invasion of Tabitha’s privacy by making a public disclosure of the facts of Tabitha’s rape to her entire senior class and much of the faculty; negligent infliction of emotional distress; fraud; violation of the Utah Consumer Sales Practices Act and negligent misrepresentation of the school’s ability to safeguard Tabitha’s physical, emotional, and social health and wellbeing.
“The Bells incurred some $125,000 in tuition costs alone so their daughter could receive a high-quality secondary education,” said Ferbrache. “Instead, Tabitha was subjected to years of constant emotional and physical stress and unimaginable trauma.”
The suit seeks $10 Million in compensatory, as well as punitive damages, along with legal costs and other relief the court may deem just and proper. A jury trial is requested.