Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Sexual Harassment Roundup

A federal district court in Massachusetts has refused to dismiss Title IX and other claims against Palmer Public Schools stemming from a male guidance counselor's sexual relationship with a female high school student. According to the court, plaintiff sufficiently alleged the required notice and deliberate indifference. In particular, the plaintiff alleged that prior to the guidance counselor's sexual affair with her, school officials had notice of allegations that he had had sex with another student and were concerned about his tendency to get "too cozy" with students. Yet, he was not disciplined or supervised in any way to protect female students. The only actions school officials did take were stopping a female student from placing her legs on his, directing him to remove pictures of female students from his office wall, and "contemplating—but never effectuating—" transferring him to the middle school. Doe v. Fournier, 2012 WL 591669 (D. Mass. Feb. 22, 2012).

In contrast, a federal district court in Washington held that plaintiffs did not sufficiently allege that school officials had notice and were deliberately indifferent to signs that a school counselor posed a risk to students prior to having molested the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs had argued that school officials should have been on notice of this risk because they knew that the counselor had once taken a student away from school during lunch hour (with the parent's permission) and that the counselor had once massaged a student in his office. These allegations, if true, do not provide a sufficient basis for the court to conclude that school officials had actual notice that the counselor was or could become a child molester. Doe v. Coleville Sch. Dist, 2012 WL 554430 (E.D. Wash. Feb. 21, 2012).

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently affirmed a lower court's decision to dismiss a Title IX case against a Michigan school district brought by a plaintiff alleging that the school was indifferent to the risk of sexual assault posed by another student. The appellate court rejected plaintiff's argument that the perpetrating student's lengthy history of disciplinary policies, including acts of sexual harassment that took place at other schools, put the school on notice and triggered a responsibility to protect the plaintiff from assault. Interpreting the notice requirement more narrowly than other courts, this court held that acts of harassment against other victims are not sufficient to put a school district on notice of the risk of harm in a particular plaintiff's case. Pahssen v. Merrill Community Schools,2012 WL 333779 (6th Cir. Feb. 3 2012).

Lastly, a federal district court in Louisiana dismissed Title IX charges against a school stemming from the sexual assault of a female middle school student plaintiff by three male peers. The plaintiff argued that school officials were informed of the first incident of harassment, which occurred in January 2008, but did not take sufficient steps to protect her from a second incident, which occurred in March of that same year. The court reasoned that while, in retrospect, more could have been done to punish the perpetrators and protect the victim, the school's response was not unreasonable in the moment, having required each perpetrator to serve a four-day out-of-school suspension followed by a period of in-school suspension of 14 days for the primary perpetrators and two days for the less-responsible perpetrator. However, the court agreed that the plaintiff could continue to litigate her retaliation claim, based on evidence that her residency was investigated and she was expelled from the district after complaining about the January incident, as well as evidence suggesting that the plaintiff was singled out for such investigation. Pemberton v. West Feliciana Parish School Bd.,2012 WL 443860 (M.D.La., Feb. 10, 2012).