A district court in Pennsylvania has denied summary judgment to the Pottsgrove School District and the school principal in a case involving a sexual relationship between the high school band director and a female student in the band.
The plaintiff was a seventeen-year-old senior in 2003-04. During that year, she and the then-29-year old band director Christian Oakes had a 10 month long sexual relationship.
After graduating, the plaintiff sued the school and the principle under Title IX. School districts can be liable for sex discrimination committed by their students and teachers when an appropriate person, like a principal, has notice of and is deliberately indifferent to the ongoing discrimination. Harassing a student on the basis of sex is an actionable discrimintion under Title IX. In this case, the school district argued that because the sexual relationship between the student and the teacher was consensual (by plaintiff's own admission) it did not amount to sexual harassment.
The judge rejected this argument, analogizing to two lines of precedent in which a person is considered legally incapable to consent to sex. The first line established the principle that a person in an authoritative, custodial position (paradigmatically, a jailer) is considered to have so much power over the individuals under his or her control that consent to sex by a subordinated individual is meaningless. The second analogy was to the concept of statutory rape, under which a minor is deemed incapable to consent to sex with an adult for no other reason than the minor's age. The judge reasoned that "The teacher-student relationship encapsulates both of these lines, with teachers exercising custodial control over high school students in their classrooms... Under these circumstances, the Court concludes that Plaintiff did not have the legal capacity to welcome Oakes's sexual advances."
This conclusion is, according to the judge, consistent with the "result obtained by many courts, which have implicitly presumed, without much discussion, that a high school student's having sexual contact with her teacher constitutes sexual harassment or abuse."
Though the court clarified that a teacher's sexual relationship is sex discrimination under Title IX, a factual dispute over whether the principal knew or should have known about the relationship also precluded a summary judgment for the defendants. Barring a settlement, a jury will decide whether the principal knew about the relationship and took sufficient action to put an end to it.
The case is: Chancellor v. Pottsgrove School Dist., 2007 WL 2274837 (E.D. Pa., Aug. 8. 2007).