Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sexual Harassment Roundup

Here is a roundup of some recent judicial decisions in Title IX sexual harassment cases:

A federal court in New York dismissed a Title IX claim against the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District.  While in tenth grade, the plaintiff, had been receiving home tutoring and treatment for anxiety and self-injurious behavior when she disclosed to a counselor the she had been sexually abused by male classmates on two separate occasions while she was in eight and ninth grades. At that point, school responded by enrolling her in an alternative education program.  When that did not work out, district officials decided to resume individual tutoring, but denied the parent's request to transfer her to a public school out of district, which they said they did not have the power to grant. The court determined that by taking these measures, the school district could not be said to have acted with the "deliberate indifference" required for liability to attach. This decision is concerning, however, not because the school district did not honor the parent's request, but because school officials apparently waited several months before informing parents that they could, if they wanted, file a written grievance that would trigger an investigation and potential corrective and disciplinary measures against the students accused of sexual assault.  In my mind, this aspect of the district's behavior should have constituted deliberate indifference. School officials should have initiated an investigation when the plaintiff first reported that she had been abused by two male students.  I see no point in requiring a formal, written grievance, let alone waiting several months before informing the student's parents of that requirement.  On this point, the court disagreed because the sexual assaults had not happened recently, but in prior years.  For reasons I don't understand, this somehow justified the school's delay in this regard.  I'm rooting for an appeal in this case.  K.F. ex rel. C.F. v. Monroe Woodbury Cent. Sch. Dist., 2013 WL 177911 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 16, 2013).

A federal court in Missouri dismissed two separate Title IX claims against Saint Louis University filed by a former student.  One of the claims alleges that the university responded with deliberate indifference to her report that she was raped at an off-campus party in 2006.  The court rejected this claim, attributing the university's delay in commencing an investigation to the plaintiff's delay in reporting the incident and turning over the assailant's name, and pointing out the university's response, meanwhile in ensuring that the plaintiff received support and counseling.   In a separate claim, the plaintiff alleged that while a student-athlete on the field hockey team, she was the victim of sex discrimination in the supervision of the athletic training, and the absence of medical and academic support that would have kept her eligible and able to continue to participate on the team. However, the court dismissed this claim as well, citing the plaintiff's failure to compare the academic and medical support she received to that provided to male students. Roe v. Univ. of St. Louis, 2012 WL 6757558 (E.D. Mo. Dec. 31, 2012).

In Oklahoma, a federal court refused to dismiss a Title IX case against Mounds School District stemming from the sexual abuse of a student by a counselor who worked at the high school, but was employed a social services agency, not the district. The court agreed that the school district had actual notice that the counselor posed a threat of abuse to the student when the high school principal received information that the counselor was engaging in sexually suggestive communication with the student. "Actual notice," required for Title IX liability to attach, generally requires notice to a person with authority over the individual accused of harassment.  Here, even though the principal did not have direct authority to hire and fire the counselor, the court agreed that the requisite authority existed, given that the school could have still taken steps to exclude the counselor from the premises in protection of the student.  Having received sufficient notice, the school had an obligation to respond in a manner designed to protect the student from a situation that escalated into abuse, which the plaintiff satisfactorily alleged the school did not do.   Doe v. Defendant A, 2012 WL 6694070 (N.D. Okla. Dec. 21, 2012).