Thursday, November 20, 2014

Springfield, Massachusetts Middle School Could Stand Trial Over Student's Sexual Assault

A federal district court judge in Massachusetts denied the Springfield School Committee's motion for summary judgment on a Title IX filed by the mother of a female student who was sexually assaulted by a male classmate at Duggan Middle School. The mother's complaint alleged that school officials were on notice due to a prior incident of inappropriate sexual contact by that same male student.  After that initial incident, teachers separated the students and ensured no further contact for the remainder of the school year.  But the next school year, both students were placed in the same class and no warning provided to their teacher about the prior incident.  The teacher allowed the students to be unsupervised together, which the male student took as an opportunity to commit sexual assault on two occasions.

The court determined that the mother's allegations on behalf of her daughter state a claim for institutional liability under Title IX, which requires plaintiffs to prove that school officials had notice of a threat of sexual harassment or assault and responded with deliberate indifference. Applying this standard, the judge determined that, despite the school officials' initial vigilance, their failure to provide any continuity the following year could, if proven, satisfy the standard.

The next step in this case will likely be a conference to set a timeline for trial. In many cases, however, surviving the defendant's motion for summary judgment provides the plaintiff with greater leverage for a settlement.