Thursday, October 16, 2008

School's Response to Teacher's Sexual Misconduct Did Not Violate Title IX

A teacher in Georgia showed students digital pictures of his genitals, but a federal district court concluded that the school's response was sufficient to forestall liability under Title IX.

In February 2005, a teacher at Lamar County High School overheard students discussing that their history teacher, Tyshon Byrd, had shown them pictures of genitals that were on his cell phone. The teacher informed the assistant principal, who informed the principal. For one week, the principal investigated the charges against Byrd, interviewing both the students whom the teacher had heard, as well as a number of students from Byrd's class who were selected at random. (The principal also attempted to discover whether there were in fact inappropriate pictures on the Byrd's cell phone, but such evidence was not found.)

Based on the students' consistent reports, the principal held a meeting where students presented their charges in the presence of Byrd and other school officials. Byrd was subsequently terminated.

A lawsuit was then filed by some of the students who had seen the photos. However, the court determined that, prior to the learning of the digital photos, the school district did not have actual notice of that Byrd posed a sexual threat. Moreover, the district's response --investigating the students' claims for one week, and then terminating Byrd after confirming the students' story -- was not deliberate indifference required to satisfy the standard for liability under Title IX.

This case clearly illustrates how tough the deliberate indifference standard can be for plaintiffs, as it seems to me pretty unreasonable to leave a teacher in the classroom as credible evidence confirming his sexual misconduct began to mount. In fact, I wonder if the court thought the plaintiffs' harm -- "only" being subjected to the anxiety of remaining in a teacher's classroom after being subjected to photographs of his genitals -- was trivial, and let that assessment cloud the question of liability. Of course, this anxiety could be emotionally damaging to students, especially to those with a sexual trauma history, as my psychologist friend points out. But to more clearly illustrate the point: what if the Byrd had sexually assaulted a student after the principal's week-long investigation had begun and before he was fired? Would the court have been more likely there to conclude that the principal's decision to leave the teacher in the classroom for that whole time amounted to indifference? If so, there should be no different result here on the question of liability, only, perhaps in the assessment of damages.

Decision is: Brown v. Lamar County School Dist., 2008 WL 4500135 (M.D.Ga. Sept. 30, 2008).