Fortine School Mishandled Student Sexual Harassment Case, Federal Investigation Finds

School officials violated a student’s federal Title IX protections on multiple counts by failing to properly investigate alleged sexual misconduct, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education

By Denali Sagner
Fortine Elementary School on Oct. 24, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Administrators at the Fortine School District in Lincoln County failed to respond to a report of sexual harassment against an elementary school student, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) found.

In a nine-page resolution letter obtained by the Beacon, OCR Supervisory Attorney Paul Goodwin outlined multiple violations of federal Title IX protections by the Fortine School District after a parent reported an incident of sexual harassment against their 5-year-old male child that allegedly took place at the school’s summer camp in July 2022.

OCR officials determined that after becoming aware of the harassment allegations, the Fortine School District dismissed an internal complaint filed by a parent, relying upon the decisions of local law enforcement and child protective services instead of completing a comprehensive, independent investigation as mandated under Title IX. OCR officials also found that the school failed to offer supportive services to the student; improperly limited the interviews conducted during the school’s brief internal investigation; and failed to make available Title IX procedures and information to parents, staff and students.

“Specifically, OCR found that the basis for the Principal’s dismissal of the formal complaint filed by the Parent with the District was clearly unreasonable in light of known circumstances,” the resolution letter stated, adding that the dismissal of the allegations “suggests an indifference to the seriousness and potential trauma of sexual assault, particularly in a case such as this where the allegation involves a young child.”

While Fortine School District administrators entered into a resolution agreement with OCR, they deny any violations of state or federal law.

Title IX is the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school that receives funding from the federal government. The statute requires that a school investigate any claim of sexual violence, harassment or gender-based discrimination through a detailed investigation process. Under Title IX, schools are required to provide support services to victims, and must publicly and clearly share information about Title IX grievance procedures.

To address student privacy concerns, the Beacon has referred to the alleged victim as “Student A,” and their parent, the party who filed the federal Title IX complaint, as “the Parent,” following the language employed by OCR in the resolution letter.

The Fortine School District is a small, rural district in Lincoln County, which serves approximately 75 students between kindergarten and eighth grade.

According to the Parent, during the afternoon of July 13, they were putting Student A in his car seat when Student A complained of pain in his groin area and showed severe emotional distress. When the Parent examined Student A at home, they allegedly found bruising around his body, including in his genital area. The Parent suspected that Student A was assaulted at the summer camp, and was specifically concerned that an assault had occurred when children were changing in and out of bathing suits in the bathroom.

That evening, the Parent spoke with Fortine School Principal Laura Pluid on the phone, disclosing suspected abuse of their son. In notes taken by Pluid, which were obtained by the Beacon through a public records request, Pluid wrote that the Parent told her “about the abuse that her son sustained at our summer rec program” and the Parent said that “his legs were riddled with bruises, he had marks on his neck” and his genitals were purple and swollen.

Pluid is the district’s Title IX coordinator and received Title IX training from the Montana School Boards Association in November 2020, according to the OCR resolution letter.

The Beacon attempted to reach Pluid, Fortine School Board Chair Virginia Pine, and Tony Koenig, director of legal services for the Montana School Boards Association and legal representative for the Fortine School District, multiple times over the course of several months. All three individuals declined to speak directly about the investigation or the alleged incident.

The Fortine School eventually fulfilled a public records request submitted by the Beacon and provided the following statement on Wednesday morning:

“It has been and continues to be the position of the District that no violations of federal or state law have occurred. It has been clear since OCR investigators interviewed District personnel that the outcome of their investigation was predetermined. It became obvious early on in the process that the factual allegations being investigated by OCR were not consistent with the report made to and investigated by the District, although OCR refused to provide the District with specific factual allegations. It has also been clear to the District that OCR simply chose to disregard the facts provided by District personnel during the investigation, having already determined prior to interviewing District personnel that a violation occurred. The District’s investigation into this matter supports a conclusion that no sexual harassment or any other violation of Title IX occurred on District property. The District nevertheless agreed to the resolution agreement proposed by OCR in an attempt to bring this matter to a conclusion so that the District could focus on educating the students of the District. The District has not, and will not, admit to any violations of state or federal law, because it is the position of the District that no such violations have occurred.”

Pluid, in her notes about the July 13 phone call, wrote that the Parent expressed concerns about another male student at the program, “Student B,” who was close in age to Student A. The Parent told Pluid that Student A “was traumatized” and kept repeating the name of Student B. The Parent told Pluid that prior to July 13, summer camp staff told the Parent that on several occasions when the children were sent into the bathroom to change, Student A came running out of the bathroom screaming and crying in only his underwear, and that Student B was in the bathroom with Student A on these occasions.

Summer camp staff in interviews with OCR officials denied that such an incident ever took place and said that they never reported such an incident to the Parent. Staff told OCR that, rather, they encountered challenges with Student A multiple times throughout the summer camp session, and that he would regularly come out of the bathroom not fully dressed. Staff “denied that Student A was ever upset on these occasions and denied ever suggesting that to the Parent,” according to the OCR letter. 

One program assistant, who is also the parent of Student B, said that Student B was sometimes in the bathroom for “a while” with Student A, but said they were “talking and laughing.” 

After the Parent made an initial report on July 13, they met with Pluid on July 14 at the Fortine School and asked Pluid to “report the alleged incident to Child Protective Services.”

In Montana, the Child and Family Services Division (CFSD) of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) is responsible for child protective services.

Fortine Elementary School on Oct. 24, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Pluid said that she would not report the events to CFSD because of a “lack of knowledge of events,” and said that Student A’s therapist or parent should report the incident.

Per Montana Code Annotated, all school employees are required to report suspected child abuse or neglect, “regardless of whether the person suspected of causing the abuse or neglect is a parent or other person responsible for the child’s welfare.”

Following the July 14 meeting between the Parent and Pluid, a verbal altercation occurred during which the Parent walked into the Fortine School gymnasium and began taking photos and speaking to staff, according to the OCR letter. The parent left the school property, and Pluid reported the altercation to the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department. When law enforcement arrived, Pluid told them about the Parent’s allegations of sexual harassment. The following day, law enforcement told Pluid they would not be investigating the allegations due to “the young ages of the victim and the alleged respondent,” Student B, according to the OCR letter.

The Lincoln County sheriff’s deputy listed in public records as the responding officer in the case did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.

On July 15, Student A’s pediatrician determined that “something had happened” to the child after completing a physical examination and observing his behavior. The pediatrician that day made a report to CFSD.

According to notes taken by Pluid, she spoke to Jonathan Nelson at the Lincoln County CFSD office on July 18 to “discuss [her] reporting obligation” and to verify that a report had been made. Pluid told OCR in a later interview that CFSD told her that given “the age of the children, even if this had happened, there wasn’t really anything to do or any follow-up to be done.”

Both Nelson and DPHHS Communications Director Jon Ebelt said that DPHHS does not comment on individual child welfare cases.

On July 19, per records obtained by the Beacon, the Parent emailed Pluid, as well as members of the Fortine School Board, writing that they had received no word on “the process the school is going to take for the investigation” and that they were “waiting still to receive a list [of] my child’s rights and waiting to be able to give a list of questions we want answered during the interview process.”

The Parent listed a number of questions about the Fortine School’s Title IX investigation process, saying it was not clear who the Title IX coordinator was, how the investigation would be carried out and what Student A’s rights were.

On July 21, Pine, the chair of the Fortine School Board, informed the Parent via email that an internal investigation was underway. Eleven days later, on Aug. 1, the Parent received a letter from Pluid, who was identified as “Fortine School Acting Title IX Coordinator,” that the complaint had been dismissed.

In the letter to the Parent, Pluid wrote, “In this case the District finds that the alleged conduct, even if proved, would not constitute sexual harassment as prohibited by Title IX.”

In an Aug. 1 email to the Fortine School Board, Pluid wrote, “All allegations have been thoroughly investigated, and I feel that our staff had been very attentive to the needs of all students. I have not found any staff, parents, or students that can corroborate any of the allegations.”

Pluid later told OCR that the school district closed the investigation because it was relying upon the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department and CFSD’s decisions to not take action on the harassment allegations and because it “could not find anything to corroborate anything” that the Parent had alleged.

During the Fortine School District’s internal investigation into the allegations, Pluid interviewed the summer camp program director, two program assistants (one of whom is the parent of Student B), and the summer program cook. The school district did not interview the high school aide, Student A’s parents, Student B, any students who may have been in the bathroom during the alleged assault, or parents of potential student witnesses. Pluid told investigators she did not feel “qualified” to interview young children.

In its investigation of the Fortine School District’s handling of the allegations, OCR officials highlighted a number of failures in the district’s internal investigation and concluded that the school’s dismissal of the case was “clearly unreasonable in light of known circumstances.”

OCR officials wrote that the Fortine School District excluded “interviewing witnesses who would have been positioned to observe what may have happened to Student A to cause bruising on his genitals” and instead chose to only interview staff who would have not been able to observe such an incident in the bathroom.

During the federal investigation, OCR officials received a telephone call from a relative of another student who attended the Fortine School summer program at the same time as Student A and Student B. The individual said that the third student “witnessed other boys in the restroom” touching the genitals of another student. The individual also said that the third student “was afraid to use the restroom after that because he was afraid the other students would try to touch him too.” The individual decided to come forward after hearing that a complaint had been filed with OCR, according to the resolution letter. OCR officials wrote that there is no indication that this information was shared with the Fortine School District.

OCR also concluded that the district “impermissibly relied upon decisions made by the local police and [CFSD] instead of making an independent determination whether Student A was subjected to sexual harassment as defined by Title IX,” skirting its legally mandated responsibilities under the federal protections. Because legal standards for criminal investigations are different from those outlined under Title IX, the resolution letter stated, police investigations “may not be determinative of whether or not sexual harassment occurred under Title IX and do not relieve the school of its duty to respond promptly and in a manner that is not deliberately indifferent.”

In addition to failures in the investigative process, OCR condemned the district’s assertion in its dismissal letter that “the alleged conduct, even if proved, would not constitute sexual harassment.”

OCR also found that Pluid and the Fortine School failed to provide supportive measures to the Parent and Student A. Pluid told OCR officials that she did not provide supportive measures to help Student A comfortably attend the summer camp because the Parent pulled him from the program after the alleged incident.

OCR also noted that the Fortine School did not properly make available its Title IX procedures. The school district listed two different employees as its Title IX coordinator in two different documents, and did not list any name in a third document. Similarly, the Fortine School did not publish its up-to-date Title IX grievance procedures on its website.

Among other provisions outlined in the resolution agreement, Fortine School District staff and students will undergo annual sexual harassment training; staff will be trained to respond to reports of sexual harassment in a manner that is compliant with Title IX; and the district will provide students and families with information about how to report sexual harassment. The Fortine School District will also provide OCR with information regarding its responses to any future complaints through the 2024-2025 school year, and OCR will monitor the district’s compliance with the resolution agreement.

Koenig, of the Montana School Boards Association, in an Oct. 13 email told the Beacon that the district “has not admitted to any wrongdoing, but believed it to be in the best interests of the parties to move forward by way of the attached agreement.”

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