Judge dismisses sex abuse lawsuit against Mount St. Mary Catholic High School

Yahoo! [Sunnyvale CA]

August 29, 2023

By Josh Dulaney, The Oklahoman

A federal judge has dismissed an explosive lawsuit filed by several young women who accused a prominent private high school in Oklahoma City of fostering a culture of sexual abuse and harassment.

In Oklahoma City federal court, U.S. District Judge David L. Russell threw out the case against Mount St. Mary High School, which was brought by more than a dozen Jane Does who claimed breach of contract, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, public nuisance and violations of Title IX.

In his ruling Russell agreed with defense attorneys that the statute of limitations had run out to file a Title IX case.

Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in schools — including sexual harassment and sexual assault — mandates that schools receiving federal funding have in place personnel and procedures to ensure a thorough and fair hearing for both the accuser and the accused.

Federal funding recently by Mount St. Mary included more than $679,000 in COVID-19 relief money, according to previous Oklahoma State Department of Education data reviewed by The Oklahoman.

What was alleged in the Title IX lawsuit?

The lawsuit, initially filed in Oklahoma County District Court in May 2022, claimed Mount St. Mary fostered “a rape culture that is unsafe for women and girls, discourages reporting and shames those who do not report assault and other sexual misconduct.”

Last year, The Oklahoman reported extensively on the accusations, the lawsuit and the fallout, which included an independent investigation, a student walkout and three resignations.

The alleged incidents on school property included a male student masturbating in front of a female student, a female student forcibly moved into a stairwell where she was kissed and groped against her will, a sexual assault on a school bus returning from a baseball game, multiple male athletes groping women at school, and an adult coach slapping a female student’s buttocks as she entered a classroom.

Other allegations included incidents during athletic events when men and boys would squirt water from water bottles onto the breast and genital areas of women and girls in view of coaches.

Students allegedly circulated to each other sexually explicit and inappropriate videos of other students — with the knowledge of teachers, staff and administration — and discussed the sexual “skills” and proclivities of female students.

Former principal Talita DeNegri resigned, followed by an assistant principal and a former guidance counselor.

A former Oklahoma teacher of the year, DeNegri stepped down after 19 years as principal.

After her resignation, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City issued a statement that “an independent investigation revealed The Mount administrative leadership failed to take action in response to reported allegations of sexual harassment and assault by students against other students.”

A spokesperson for the Archdiocese could not be reached for comment Monday.

Former principal hired as executive assistant at Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics

DeNegri this month was hired as an executive assistant at the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics in Oklahoma City according to Oklahoma Watch.

The hire came just weeks after the OSSM was sued by a former employee who alleges that sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and a toxic and misogynistic culture have gone unchecked for years, Oklahoma Watch reported.

In the Mount Saint Mary lawsuit, its Board of Trustees along with the Sisters of Mercy and the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City were also named as defendants. The lawsuit accused school officials of ignoring signs of a rape culture after a 2011 lawsuit settlement involving a teenage girl who accused a male student of raping her off campus after a basketball game.

More: OSSM new hire comes from another school accused of ignoring sexual harassment

In his 14-page dismissal order, Russell sided with defense attorneys who argued that two years had passed and therefore the statute of limitations had expired.

Based on their own allegations, several of the Jane Does should have known earlier they had Title IX claims, Russell wrote.

The judge said the Jane Does’ allegations showed they were aware of their alleged abusers’ identities, that they were still attending and working at Mount St. Mary, and the school’s response to their reports of abuse was inadequate.

The federal judge also wrote that several of the allegedly discriminatory acts by the parochial school were public in nature, and so was the settling of the 2011 lawsuit “alleging that MSM failed to warn female students of a dangerous student with a predilection for inappropriate sexual behavior.”

“These plaintiffs therefore knew or should have known they had potential tort and Title IX claims against MSM at least by the time they left the school,” Russell wrote. “Moreover, some plaintiffs specifically allege they had actual knowledge of MSM’s deficient institutional response to reports of sexual harassment at the time they reported their own abuse.”

On the allegation of breach of contract, the lawsuit claimed a Mount St. Mary handbook made a number of promises to students, including that it would investigate any and all complaints of sexual harassment and impose disciplinary action it deemed appropriate for violations of its harassment policy.

Russell dismissed the claim, writing that the handbook statements “are broad, policy-driven statements concerning MSM’s general approach and expectations of students and staff.”

Russell also wrote that the Jane Does didn’t identify specific contractual terms in the handbook showing school promises to provide a particular service, take a particular action or enforce violations in a particular manner.

The judge ruled the plaintiffs failed to state a plausible claim for public nuisance under Oklahoma law.

As to the co-defendants in the case, Russell wrote that asserting claims against the board of trustees was duplicative, and therefore dismissed.

Russell also agreed with defense attorneys who argued the Archdiocese and Sisters of Mercy may not be held vicariously liable for Mount St. Mary’s conduct.

“There are no facts describing their participation beyond their purported supervision of MSM,” Russell wrote.

The Jane Does may amend their claims, he wrote.

Their attorney could not be reached for comment Monday.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Title IX lawsuit against Mount St. Mary High School in OKC dismissed