Disabled student sues school for ‘mishandling sexual assault’

Posted August 6th, 2020.

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A former student at an elite private school in Utah has accused administrators of mishandling a 2017 sexual assault allegation, claiming they encouraged classmates to shun her and shared private details of her ordeal that ended up being reenacted in an assembly.

After Tabitha Bell, now 20, told the school she was raped at home by a lacrosse player who was her friend, administrators at Waterford School held a meeting with the rest of her class where they shared details of the off-campus allegations.

Bell claims in the lawsuit filed Friday that they would not help her enforce a protective order against her classmate and now she is seeking $10 million in damages.

‘I don’t want anybody else who goes to Waterford to be hurt in the same way I was hurt,’ Tabitha Bell said about what happened when she was 17, during an interview Monday from her home in California.

The Associated Press does not typically name people who say they are victims of sexual assault, but Bell said she wanted to share her story publicly to help other students who are assaulted and fellow students with disabilities.

Waterford officials say they ‘categorically disagree’ with her allegations. Head of School Andrew Menke said Tuesday that staffers do not discriminate based on disability or other factors.

‘The accusations leveled in this suit are inflammatory and not an accurate representation of how the school supported this student through five years of attendance,’ he said in a statement.

‘We take seriously the well-being of each student and have an environment, where respect and inclusion make possible the deepest forms of intellectual, emotional, and character growth.’

School officials declined to comment on the details of Bell’s allegations in the lawsuit she filed Friday.

She reported the rape allegations to police, but prosecutors initially declined to file charges because she ‘failed to say or physically manifest any lack of consent at this time, other than not actively participating,’ prosecutors said in a letter obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.

Bell said she froze in fear when the male lacrosse player who had been her friend began assaulting her at her home, a response reported by many sexual assault victims.

She said her disability, moreover, makes her largely unable to physically fight. Bell has a rare form of muscular dystrophy called Charcot Marie Tooth (CMT) that affects her strength and balance, making it harder for her to do things like walk on her own.

The Utah attorney general is now reviewing the case after Bell helped advocate for a change to state law last year. Her lawsuit does not name the classmate she accused of assaulting her.

However her lawyers state he has a known history of sexual harassment and physical violence.

When her family decided to enroll her in 2014 at the $25,000-a-year private school in Sandy, near Salt Lake City, administrators promised to accommodate her disability.

That didn’t happen, Bell said in the lawsuit.

Instead, while her parents spent at least $125,000 on her time there, her classmates were asked to carry her up and down stairs she couldn’t navigate – even when there were relatively simple alternatives, like a more accessible entrance to the stage at a choir performance.

In that case, the director thought allowing her to enter and leave in a different spot from the other students would ‘ruin the look’ of the performance, the lawsuit claims.

‘It was definitely humiliating … having my peers carry me around, look at me like I’m this sickly student,’ she said. ‘I try to be as self-sufficient as I can be, and all I was asking for was normal, small accommodations.’

Her legal team claims 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,’ Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP, state.

‘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.’

She also alleges a Waterford teacher accused her of faking her disability and another asked her to do things like moving desks that caused her to fall and get a concussion.

Things ‘went from bad to worse’ after Bell reported an off-campus rape by a classmate in November 2017, her senior year, the lawsuit says. She obtained a protective order, but school officials said they couldn’t restrict the boy from campus even after he graduated a month after she reported the allegations.

Two of the boy’s friends reenacted the assault at a school assembly in December 2017, Bell said, and she heard her classmates in the audience laughing before the principal stopped it.

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‘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,’ a press release from her lawyer claims.

She alleges administrators didn’t do enough to stop the bullying, instead offering her an early graduation plan, saying it would make other students ‘more comfortable,’ the lawsuit says.

Still, she had some support among a few friends as the #MeToo movement took off nationwide, Bell said.

Then, in February 2018, administrators called a meeting of the senior class to which she was not invited, according to the lawsuit. Officials discussed details of her claims and told students not to speak with her, the lawsuit says.

After that, she said her friends stopped sitting with her and dropped out of a fundraiser she was organizing. Bell founded Pawsitive Possibilities to help provide service dogs to those who cannot afford them.

‘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 in a statement announcing the lawsuit.

‘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.’

She finished her senior year, graduated and is now attending the University of California, Berkeley. She’s studying to be a pediatric trauma psychologist, hoping she can give back and speak out on behalf of sexual assault victims and people with disabilities.

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‘I want to be able to allow all these experiences to actually do something good,’ she said. ‘I want to be able to give that voice.’

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.

‘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,’ one of her lawyers, Sanford Heisler Sharp partner Steven J. Kelly, said.

‘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.’

A jury trial is requested.

The suit seeks $10million in compensatory, as well as punitive damages, along with legal costs and other relief the court may deem just and proper.

‘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,’ said Deborah K. Marcuse, managing partner of Sanford Heisler Sharp’s Baltimore office.

‘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,’ ‘ said senior litigation counsel Christine Dunn.

‘However, under Utah state law, common law and the school’s own policies, Waterford must be held accountable for protecting its students.’

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