Isidore Newman School Apologizes to Our Client Who Sued After She Said Sexual Assault Report Led to Ridicule

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The Isidore Newman School has apologized in court and agreed to pay “several hundred thousand dollars” to an alumna who filed a lawsuit in 2018 against her alma mater, saying she faced ridicule and harassment from a number of her peers and their parents after reporting that a classmate sexually assaulted her in an off-campus incident.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael North read aloud some of the terms of the settlement in a Wednesday court proceeding that capped off a case that’s been ongoing for more than five years and was initially sealed from public view. The plaintiff, Mary Claire McCoy, has graduated both high school and college since the underlying events of the case took place, and said Wednesday that she felt immense relief that it was over.

“I received validation for what I went through,” McCoy said, noting that Newman’s apology and the presence of former Newman board chair Peter Sperling in court Wednesday were both meaningful to her. McCoy said she wanted to tell her story publicly; The Times-Picayune | The Advocate generally does not identify sexual assault survivors without their permission.

“We continue to emphasize our ongoing commitment to student support, gender equity, and non-discrimination for all Newman students,” current head of school Dale E. Smith said in a prepared statement Wednesday. “We genuinely regret the emotionally difficult experience of our former student. Our past and present programming involves discussion with high school students about physical and emotional well-being with a focus on boundaries, consent, and healthy relationships.”

North said in open court that McCoy would accept a confidential settlement payment from Newman. The payment is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — “closer to a million than not,” according to one of her attorneys, Doug Fierberg.

North also said that the school apologizes to McCoy “for what she experienced her senior year and since then.” He said the school is also committed to following Title IX, the federal law that bans institutions from discriminating based on gender and requires them to investigate complaints of sexual assault.

The law was a central issue in the case: McCoy’s attorneys argued that Newman violated her civil rights and created a hostile environment for female students. Attorneys for Newman largely argued that they could not control the behavior of parents and students off campus, and that they’d taken immediate action to report McCoy’s allegation to police and to investigate it themselves once they knew about it.

The settlement specified that Newman did not admit any liability, according to the terms North read aloud.

Parents reportedly threatened to stop donating

McCoy, who attended Wednesday’s court proceeding flanked by her family, said she pursued the lawsuit because she wanted to ensure that no other Newman students would endure what she’d gone through.

The incident that prompted it happened in late 2016, when a group of Newman students were spending time together off campus. McCoy later reported to police that her male classmate sexually assaulted her in a bathroom, penetrating her with his fingers without her consent.

Newman teachers and administrators first learned about the incident when one of her friends wrote an essay about it in 2017. They called police, who arrested the male student. He pleaded guilty in 2018 to misdemeanor sexual battery.

Newman initially hired a law firm to investigate the allegations, and later told McCoy’s family that her assailant would be “permanently separated” from Newman and that he would not graduate, according to court filings. That decision set off an uproar, with some Newman students wearing buttons and toting banners at school in support of the male student, the lawsuit states.

The decision riled up some parents as well. An anonymous group of around eight parents who had been communicating in a group text sent a letter to Newman in 2018 that questioned the investigation’s credibility and that said there was a movement afoot for Newman donors to give just $1 each to the school’s annual fund, according to court records.

By spring 2018, Newman had allowed the male student back on campus for some events. School officials told the McCoys that they’d developed concerns about their initial investigation and that they could either mediate with the male student’s family or Newman would open a second investigation, according to court filings. But while the McCoys chose to move forward with a second probe, Newman decided on an “optimal resolution” of giving the male student a Newman diploma, according to the filings.

After she graduated in 2018, McCoy filed suit. The male student and his family were initially defendants as well, but they were dismissed from the case in 2020, according to the docket.

“We never realized the obstacles we’d have to overcome within this community to take on Newman,” said Mary Claire McCoy’s father, Dillard McCoy, on Wednesday.

Case was under seal for years

All of the court filings in the case were under seal for the first three years of the case, until The Times-Picayune | The Advocate moved to intervene in late 2021.

Attorneys for the newspaper argued against sealing the entirety of the record, rather than redacting documents on a case-by-case basis. North agreed last year to unseal the case, and instructed the lawyers to swap out the sealed records with partially redacted versions to protect the privacy of minors. Once the docket was unsealed, it showed that McCoy herself had also been fighting to unseal it.

Her lawyers attempted to unseal the case in 2019 and in 2021, efforts Newman opposed. The school’s attorneys argued that unsealing the case would reveal too much confidential information about other students named in court records and other past cases of sexual assault involving students.

The newspaper’s attorneys asserted that it was in the public interest to unseal the suit with redactions to protect minors.

North touched on the contentious nature of the case Wednesday, telling McCoy that he hoped she could move on.

“This case has been ugly,” he said. “It’s been difficult for everyone. Y’all aren’t the only ones who are glad it’s over.”

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