Former Student Loses Jury Verdict But Says, ‘I Have Won My Voice’

Artwork: Dana Verkouteren

Asra Nomani | April 29, 2024

(Fairfax County Times) — In Courtroom 1000 of the federal courthouse in Alexandria, on day 24 of the trial, a clerk for federal judge Rossie D. Alston read the jury’s verdict about whether the Fairfax County School Board, a principal, three assistant principals, three teachers, and two counselors at Rachel Carson Middle School were “deliberately indifferent” to the pleas of a 12-year-old girl allegedly sexually harassed in the hallways 12 years ago and then later allegedly raped by a classmate. 

On Wednesday, the former student, B.R., or “Kate,” as she is pseudonymously known, sat on the left side of “the well,” where lawyers and the judge sit, her head held high. Sitting against the wall on the right side, many defendants doubled over, collapsing into tears with the reading of each verdict. An assistant principal, Sybil Terry, dubbed “Scary Terry, the Dress Code Fairy” by students, trembled as she wiped away tears, her head hung low. Terry laid her hand over the hand of a former student, J.O., or “Janet,” a defendant who allegedly participated in a sexual assault of Kate. Retired principal August Fratalli laid his hand over theirs, and counselor Joanne Fraundorfer and teacher Megan Carr added their hands to the pile, everyone’s heads bowed.

The last verdict read, at 12:29 p.m., the judge left the courtroom with a final pounding of the gavel, and Kate, 24, pushed her chair back swiftly from the plaintiff’s table, leapt to her feet, and bounded from the well, pushing past her family and supporters, her head held up high, a smile on her face, and a declaration: “Let’s go! I’m ready to speak!”  

In what some called an ironic twist, Kate had lost the case during Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The jury found “in favor of” each defendant. It had deliberated only five hours and planned to end the day at 1 p.m. so a juror could attend a class reunion. 

One by one, the clerk had read that the jury found “in favor of” the school board and each defendant, saying that the school board and school officials had not violated Title IX laws, which bar federally funded schools from engaging in sex discrimination. Ryan Bates, an attorney for the school board at the law firm of Hunton Andrews Kurth, put his hand on the shoulders of attorney Sona Rewari, who had worked with him, waging a controversial defense strategy, dubbed “nuts or sluts,” that pulled Kate’s kindergarten pediatrician report documenting “shyness,” second-grade report card, and teenage diary, into evidence to discredit the young woman as “emotionally” unstable and “manipulative” since she was 12 years year old.

The “trial of Kate,” as the proceedings have come to be known for the targeted school board legal strategy to put Kate and her credibility on trial, has gripped the attention of sexual assault survivors across the country. The verdict fell on the eve of an appeals court decision released on Thursday morning in New York, sending shockwaves through the community, overturning the convictions of disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and forcing a new trial. With both decisions announced during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, legal experts say the two cases –  from the local to the national – lay bare a flawed judicial system in America for alleged victims seeking justice.

A leading issue of contention in Kate’s trial was the judge allowing “Defense Exhibit 1,” a stack of 249 pages of alleged Facebook messages between Kate and Chris, which the attorneys at Hunton Andrews Kurth entered into evidence even though Facebook had not authenticated the messages. The school board defense team used the messages to build a case that Kate had been lying for 12 years, first as a “manipulative” pre-teen angry over a breakup with Chris. Kate’s attorney, Andrew Brenner, argued that the narrative defied “commonsense.”

Outside the courthouse’s revolving door, a statue depicting Lady Justice over the front door, Kate spoke publicly for the first time, revealing her face in profile and using her pseudonym. She told the Fairfax County Times, “My name is Kate, and I am the plaintiff in B.R. v. FCSB. Today, I got the verdict that I lost my case.”

“For the last five weeks,” she said, “I’ve walked underneath Lady Justice, where it says ‘Justice delayed is justice denied.’ 

“I have had my justice denied every day for the last 12 years,” Kate continued. “I was a 12-year-old that walked through the halls of Rachel Carson Middle School, relying on my teachers, administrators, and adults to protect me from abuse, and they did not do so.”

“While today, I did not win,” she said, pausing for a moment and then continuing, “It is just a greater representation of how broken the system is for survivors of sexual abuse, just like me.”

“It is a reminder of how powerful Fairfax County Public Schools, who can afford to pay big law firms, like Hunton Andrews Kurth, $14 million to litigate their case against me, can basically have a pay-for-play system.” 

“I was out-resourced, but today, just because I lost, I’ve also won,” she said, two U.S flags flanking both sides of the front entrance and fluttering in the warm spring wind. 

“I have won my voice and my freedom to finally speak up.”

After the verdict was read, defense attorneys and defendants slinked past journalists, waiting for them below Lady Liberty. 

As a cameraman for WJLA-7 hustled to get ahead of them, his foot in a brace, they refused to respond to questions. 

In her hotel room with family and friends, Kate heard the statement Fairfax County Public Schools issued and shook her head. The school district said: “The jury’s verdict today affirms that the FCPS board and nine current and former educators acted in a caring, respectful, and professional manner to support the plaintiff when she was a student 12 years ago. We are grateful to the jury for their careful evaluation of the evidence and their service on this important case.”

Earlier that morning, at 11 a.m., just before the verdict was announced, women’s rights groups, including the National Organization for Women, or NOW, and local lawmakers, including Virginia Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn, had coincidentally just stood in the courtyard across from Lady Liberty, decrying a “corrupt” judicial system that denied justice for alleged sexual assault victims. 

Kate, her parents, and her brother stood in the background, absorbing the scene as NOW President Christian Nunes declared at the microphone, “We can no longer allow a culture that says, ‘Boys will be boys.’” 

Nunes continued, “We have to really think about the work that has to be done to hold all people accountable,” from judicial systems to schools and workplaces.

A former Fairfax County school board member, Karen Keys Gamarra, an attorney who approved the school board’s legal strategy against Kate before being elected to be Virginia state delegate last November, was advertised to attend the rally but did not show up. 

Inside Courtroom 1000 during the trial, Kate’s mother alleged that Terry told her that Kate’s issues were a “boy/girl thing.” Terry allegedly once asked Kate and her mother “why they were trying to ruin a young boy’s life.” Terry denied she made either remark. 

At the rally, a family member of Kate’s stood with a sign that read, “@FCPS. Justice for 12-year-old ‘B.R,’” and a sticker, handed out by volunteers, across his mouth, reading simply, “Silenced.” Nearby, Susan Prout, a Washington, D.C., parent advocate whose daughter’s classmate was convicted for sexually assaulting her at a private school in New Hampshire, stood with a sign, “You have the right to an education free from sexual assault. Support B.R.” 

At about 12:07 p.m., phones started going off with text messages.

“VERDICT,” read one. “GO TO COURT.”

Prout looked at the phalanx of women’s rights activists and shouted politely to share the breaking news.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Prout said. “Congratulations to all of you for your advocacy as adults, but please take a moment to recognize B.R., who, as a 12-year-old, asked for help from her school when she was sexually assaulted and has been fighting these 12 years to be heard. Pray for her as the jury delivers their verdict now.”

With that, Prout and her husband gathered around Kate, her mother, and a handful of family and friends to walk across Courthouse Square Road. 

“I’m scared,” Kate said, her voice trembling, as she stepped forward anyway into the revolving door. 

On the tenth floor, they entered the near-empty courtroom, the defense team and defendants following behind. As the verdict was read, Henry Kok, a family friend and former Reston resident, shook his head. “What a total fiasco,” he later said. “The lawyers on the defendants’ side were just deplorable. If they have any sense of decency, they should be ashamed of themselves.”

In the pews, Karen Truszkowski, a Lansing, Mich., attorney representing a national nonprofit, Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, said: “More of the same. Same playbook. Same outcome. No wonder people don’t come forward. Who in their right mind would?” 

Standing under Lady Liberty, Kate said she had no regrets filing her lawsuit. 

“It was a boy’s club in there,” she said, the judge joking with the jury pool on the first day about barbequing, the Washington Commanders football team, and local high school team mascots. 

But she didn’t regret filing the lawsuit and is considering legal options. One of her lawyers, Alison Andersen, co-lead of Boies Schiller’s Sexual Misconduct and Investigations practice group, said, “While we are disappointed in the resulting verdict, our client showed tremendous courage and fortitude in fighting for justice for over a decade. We will continue to speak up for what is right.”

Staring up at Lady Justice, Kate said, “I am not ashamed. I am so proud for what I have fought for. And my message to the school board is: I am just getting started.”

This article was originally published by Fairfax County Times on April 26, 2024.