WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of Justice has entered into a settlement agreement with the Metropolitan Government of Nashville, Tenn., and Davidson County, Tenn., to enhance the security of students with disabilities on public school buses. The settlement is the result of a lawsuit stemming from episodes of peer-on-peer sexual harassment on special-needs buses operated by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.
The U.S. intervened in the lawsuit, Lopez & U.S. v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, et al., to address systemic deficiencies that resulted in sexual assault and harassment of students with disabilities on special-education buses run by the district. The acts of harassment violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination and harassment based on sex.
The agreement, in the form of a consent decree and subject to approval by Judge Robert Echols, obligates Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools to take substantial steps to enhance the security of students with special needs on its school transportation system. The steps include staffing bus monitors to assist drivers on all special-education buses; implementing comprehensive screening procedures to ensure that students with disabilities are not assigned to buses where they would be at risk of harassment; expediting the investigation of suspected acts of sexual harassment involving students with disabilities; and ensuring open lines of communication between transportation officials and school-based personnel.
As part of the settlement, $1.475 million will be paid to a 9-year-old autistic child who was assaulted on an unmonitored special-needs bus and compelled to perform oral sex on a 19-year old student. The victim reportedly developed severe post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of the assault and was institutionalized.
"While all victims of sexual assault suffer emotionally and psychologically, sexual assault can have a particularly devastating impact on children with disabilities," said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. "We will act decisively to enforce federal anti-discrimination laws against school districts that are deliberately indifferent to circumstances that threaten the safety and security of students with disabilities."
Edward M. Yarbrough, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, also noted that the region’s U.S. Attorney’s Office will work with the Department of Justice to deal strictly with those who fail to protect children with disabilities and to prevent incidents of sexual harassment from occurring in the future.