NORTH ANDOVER — Attorneys familiar with Title IX and the right to a public education say North Andover's use of "school safety plans" violates sex assault victims' civil rights.
The district’s use of school safety plans came to light when North Andover students who say they were sexually assaulted by fellow students told their stories to The Eagle-Tribune in the wake of Eliezer Tuttle’s arrest for allegedly raping a girl twice in the same day – once in Salem, New Hampshire, then later in Epping.
Safety plans restrict victims' movements around the school so that they do not come into contact with their alleged attackers.
Attorney Wendy Murphy, a professor of sexual violence law at New England Law School in Boston, questioned the practice.
"Victims are entitled to protection without punishment," said Murphy. "There is no dispute. There is no conversation.”
At the time of his arrest in Salem, Tuttle was on probation for sexually assaulting a classmate in April 2018 and had been investigated by police for allegedly raping another in October 2017, according to police and court records.
Prosecutors dropped the October 2017 case because they deemed the girl "too fragile to testify," according to her mother.
In the April 2018 attack, Tuttle was charged in juvenile court with indecent assault and battery on a person over 14. His case was continued without a finding and he was placed on probation until November 2019.
"Continued without a finding" means the accused admits to sufficient facts that a reasonable jury would convict him, without actually pleading guilty. If the accused complies with the terms of his probation and is not charged with any further crimes, at the end of the probationary period the case is dismissed and there is no record of a conviction. However, if the accused violates probation, the judge may impose a guilty verdict without trial.
Tuttle remains held without bail in Rockingham County Jail on the New Hampshire rape charges.
Since Tuttle's arrest, two North Andover High School students have shared with The Eagle-Tribune the contracts they say the district asked them to sign that regulated their movement in the school in an attempt to keep them away from him. In a case not involving Tuttle, a third teenager has provided The Eagle-Tribune with a copy of a contract she says she signed after telling school officials about assaults committed by a fellow student.
Did not sign
Michelle Crowe, the mother of the girl in the October 2017 attack, said she did not allow her daughter to sign the contract. The girl has since transferred out of the North Andover school system into a school specializing in students with trauma-based needs. The family has moved out of North Andover.
Crowe said both the move and the specialized schooling came after fights with the school district over how her daughter would be educated.
The girl in the April 2018 attack did sign the contract. She told The Eagle-Tribune her grades suffered as a result of her attack and the restrictions on her movement to the point she was in danger of failing to graduate. She transferred to night school but then was presented with a new contract that further restricted her movements to avoid contact with Tuttle. As a member of the wrestling and track teams, he was on campus after the school day ended.
Tuttle signed similar agreements regulating his movement, but he remained in school and on sports teams.
It is unclear how common contracts like the ones used by North Andover schools are, or whether they were specifically designed for use in sexual assault incidents.
In each case brought to The Eagle-Tribune’s attention, a Title IX investigation ensued, and the victims and their accused attackers were asked to sign the school safety plans.
Murphy, a former Middlesex County prosecutor, said she believes the North Andover school district could be sued for violating state civil rights laws and the Massachusetts Constitution. A student’s liberties cannot be restrained for bringing another student to court, Murphy said.
Additionally, federal Title IX regulations prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, and act as a guideline for creating a nonhostile education environment for all students, she said.
“You don’t punish the victim as a way of protecting the school environment,” Murphy said.
School officials have repeatedly refused to answer The Eagle-Tribune’s questions about the process for utilizing school safety plans.
In a statement to the community issued Tuesday, Superintendent Gregg Gilligan wrote that the school district must abide by Massachusetts law governing disciplining students, which states students cannot be suspended or expelled unless they have been charged with a felony.
Tuttle was on probation for indecent assault and battery on a person older than 14. For a juvenile, indecent assault and battery is a misdemeanor, according to Essex district attorney spokesperson Carrie Kimball.
Gilligan's statement said the district will hire an attorney to review its policies and procedures. But he did not offer any information about the school safety plans that victims were asked to sign.
Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said he has seen school safety plans as elements of “an individual part of a district policy” when dealing with broadly defined harassment, student-on-student violence or bullying.
But the school safety plans are not explicitly outlined in North Andover Public Schools policy, and are not part of policy crafted by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, an organization that establishes policies and positions adopted by school committees and districts across the state.
“We don’t have any model policies on this,” said Jim Hardy, a field service director with the school committees association.
Hardy, speaking generally about school safety plans, noted the contracts could be a district’s way of attempting to abide by Massachusetts state law and provide both students with a public education, without resorting to suspension or expulsion.
Naomi Shatz, a Boston-based attorney, said public high schools have to comply not only with Title IX requirements but also Massachusetts laws that entitle all students to a public education.
“Minors in Mass. have a right to attend public school, so the city has to provide an education to both parties,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they can’t ever suspend or expel students, they can do that and they do do that when there are allegations of all kinds of violations of school discipline code.”
Shatz noted there are also specific provisions in Massachusetts law prohibiting sexual harassment in schools.
"But they do have to provide an education to any student who has been suspended or expelled," she said. "So they have to arrange for some kind of alternate education, whether it's tutoring, night classes, or work from home. They can't stop educating a student."