Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Court Sides With School District in Cyber-Harassment Case

Recently a federal district court in New York dismissed a case against the Hastings-on-Hudson Union Free School District on grounds that the plaintiff's allegation that she had been sexually harassed by another student via email did not constitute violation of Title IX or other law.

Over the course of ten days in March of 2005, S.S., the plaintiff, a female student then in ninth grade, received three harassing emails that had apparently come from a male classmate, M.X. M.X. used the email account provided by the school to send the emails, and sent them to S.S.'s school-sponsored account. The actual language of the email is included in the opinion, but suffice it to say, they referenced S.S.'s weight, requested that she reveal her private parts to him, and declared his intention to engage in intercourse and other sexual acts with her.

The assistant principal investigated the emails after learning of them though the guidance counselor and the technology director. M.X. denied sending them, suggesting they had been sent from his account by another student to whom he had given his password. Unable to prove that M.X. sent emails (in part because school officials waited too long to check the network systems log, which only stored the relevant information seven days) the school disabled his network account as punishment for sharing his password.

In her lawsuit, S.S. argued that the school's response constituted deliberate indifference to severe and pervasive sexual harassment, a violation of Title IX. Though the court agreed that a jury could find that the district responded with deliberate indifference, it disagreed that the emails were "severe and pervasive." The court compared the emails to "simple acts of teasing" held to be outside the realm of Title IX liability, and contrasted them to cases where school district liability was based on more numerous, frequent incidents of verbal harassment or incidents that involved some offensive physical contact. For similar reason, the court denied S.S.'s constitutional claims as well.

Decision: Saurhaft v. Bd. of Educ., Hastings-on-Hudson Union Free School Dist., 2009 WL 1576467 (S.D.N.Y. June 2, 2009).