Bellingham Public Schools responds to student's lawsuit claiming district's failure to report sexual abuse

Last month, a 16-year-old filed a lawsuit against Bellingham Public Schools, accusing them of failing to act or report when she was allegedly sexually abused. 

The girl was a student at Squalicum High School in Bellingham for the 2021-2022 school year, and according to federal court documents, she was sexually abused for months by another student. Her abuser allegedly put his hands under her shirt or down her pants, rubbed himself on her, asked him to date her and tried to coerce her into performing oral sex on him.

The assaults reportedly began around Oct. 2021, and on Jan. 14, 2022, the girl reported the assaults to the school's Dean of Students.

According to court documents, the dean's response was, "What do you want me to do about it?"

On Jan. 17, she then went to another Dean of Students to report her assaults, then to the Vice Principal. Court documents report that none of the administrators reported this to police; they are required to by law.

One administrator allegedly made the victim and the student accused of abusing her participate in a "restorative circle," where she was told to  "shake hands and you'll be fine."

The victim withdrew from Squalicum High School and transferred to another school as a result, according to the suit. 

According to the Bellingham Herald, the district denied that it mishandled the student's reports and says that it took reasonable steps to report the harassment.

RELATED: Student sues Bellingham Public Schools, claims administrators failed to report sexual abuse

An attorney for the district said the allegations in the student's lawsuit were not reported to the administrators and the conduct that was reported to them didn't fall under abuse or neglect under state law, according to the Bellingham Herald. 

The district told FOX 13 that the three administrators named in the suit are still employed full-time, however, they've been reassigned to the district's Department of Teaching and Learning. 

"These employees’ work assignments have changed in recognition of the legal proceeding still in progress and to avoid disruption to the educational environment. Each of them will use their expertise and experience to help support the Department of Teaching and Learning in district-level administrative work," a district representative told FOX 13. 

The district told FOX 13 that every fall, prior to the first day of school, staff go through an annual review of laws and policies, including mandatory reporting and sexual harassment. Staff are also required to do online trainings on a variety of safety and education topics, the district said. 

During a school board meeting in December, members voted to pay for legal representation for the employees named in the suit. 

The student accused of sexual assault was arrested and charged with felony incident liberties after the victim reported her assaults to the police on Feb. 2, 2022. The case against him is currently pending in the Whatcom County Superior Court.