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Holland Christian being sued for Title IX violations

By Audra Gamble & Erin Dietzer/The Holland Sentinel • Updated Apr 11, 2018 at 11:54 AM

HOLLAND — A national nonprofit is suing Holland Christian Schools, claiming the private institution violated the civil rights of one of its former students who was the victim of sexual assault by another student.

Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, or SSAIS, announced the filing of a federal lawsuit on Wednesday, April 11, against HCS for violating Title IX, the civil rights law that protects students from sex discrimination in federally funded education programs.

The lawsuit claims that HCS did not follow rules set forth by President Barack Obama’s Title IX Dear Colleague Letter, which states that educational institutions are required to follow specific requirements for handling peer-on-peer sexual assault. Failing to adhere to these requirements, which were still in effect when the assault took place between the Holland Christian students, can result in a loss of federal funding for a school.

The mother of the victim, who is suing HCS on behalf of her daughter, said the school’s Title IX violations severely compromised their daughter’s personal safety, education and emotional well-being. The parents did not realize that Title IX could apply to their school. After SSAIS informed the parents that HCS did receive federal funds, the family filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

The Office for Civil Rights, SSAIS said in a statement, declined to review the case because it lacked jurisdiction over a school that did not receive funds from the Department of Education. However, SSAIS said Holland Christian has received over $660,000 in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture since 2012 as part of the National School Lunch Program.

The situation prompted SSAIS to create a webpage for private school families. It includes the guide Title IX and K-12 private schools, which presents the information that HCS should have known and provided to their families.

“This case is significant as it involves a private school,” said Michigan attorney and SSAIS Advisory Board member Karen Truszkowsi, who is representing the survivor. “Private schools are no different from public schools when it comes to Title IX, if the private school receives federal money. This is a wake-up call for all federally funded schools to become Title IX compliant.”

Although the Dear Colleague letter was in effect at the time of the assault, current Secretary of Education and Holland Christian alumna Betsy DeVos released revised guidelines that rescinded much of Obama’s regulations.

The case in the lawsuit concerns Bryce Joel Deroo, who was sentenced to three years of probation for third-degree criminal sexual conduct involving another student in February 2017. At the time of the assault, Deroo was 17 and the victim was 15, making the criminal sexual conduct statutory rape.

Under the sentence, Deroo was not allowed to attend daily classes at HCS, but was still allowed to attend school choir events and graduate with his class. He was not allowed to have direct contact with the female victim.

The victim requested that the court not allow Deroo on school campus at all until she graduated. The victim’s family asked Holland Christian’s Dean of Students David DeBoer if their daughter would be allowed to take her final exams alone at an undisclosed location, which DeBoer granted.

During sentencing, the victim’s parents read a statement from their daughter in the 20th Circuit Court in Grand Haven, where the victim said she was struggling with anxiety and depression due to the assault and what she called an “abusive relationship” with Deroo.

In the statement, the victim said Deroo encouraged her to harm or kill herself, told her no one liked her but him and he would get angry if he thought she was talking to her mom about the relationship between the two. He was so convincing that she began to drift away from her family and friends, the victim said in her statement.

“He treated me like a worthless object,” the victim said in her statement. “He made me hate myself. Now all I see is the bad in people and I never want to trust again.”

Deroo was approved for the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act, which removes the felony from his record if he successfully completes three years of probation, which will be completed May 2020. Due to HYTA, all public records on the case have been sealed. The court denied Sentinel requests for clarification and court transcripts.

Holland Christian Superintendent Dan Meester told The Sentinel he was unaware of the lawsuit, and had no comment.

SSAIS is a group that aims to “proactively address the epidemic of traumatic sexual harassment impacting our nation’s students,” according to the group’s website, stopsexualassaultinschools.org. The group provides students, K-12 schools and organizations resources so “the right to an equal education is not compromised by sexual harassment, sexual assault, and gender discrimination.”

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan Southern Division on Tuesday, April 10. The family of the victim is being represented by attorney Karen Truszowski.

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