Friday, February 12, 2016

Sexual Harassment Roundup: K-12 Cases

Here are summaries of some recent judicial decisions involving Title IX claims against school districts for failing to adequately respond to reports of sexual harassment and abuse.

A federal court in Connecticut refused to grant summary judgment to a school district in a case stemming from a ninth-grader's repeated sexual abuse of the sixth-grade plaintiff.  The abuse itself occurred outside of school, but the plaintiff alleges that the school district was deliberately indifferent to the fact that the abuse and her reporting of it subjected her to continued harm while at school. For one matter, the school did not take steps to expel the 9th grader, which created the opportunity for the plaintiff to encounter him in space that the middle school and high school shared. Additionally, the school did not respond to repeated requests from the plaintiff's parents to intervene in harassment that the plaintiff was enduring at the hands of some sixth-grade peers, including the perpetrator's sister. The court agreed that based on these claims it is possible for a jury to conclude that the school district was deliberately indifferent and liable under Title IX. Its ruling allows the case to continue on to trial.  Doe v. New Fairfield Bd. of Educ. 2016 WL 310720 (D. Conn. Jan. 26, 2016)

A school district in Indiana must continue to litigate a former student's claims that school officials' tolerance of hazing on the boys' swimming team violated Title IX as well as his constitutional rights. In denying the school district's motion for summary judgment, the court determined that a jury could find based on the evidence in play that the school tolerated conduct among boys that it would not have tolerated among girls, a finding that would subject the school to liability under Title IX. Because the plaintiff alleged that the school officials' indifference to hazing was "because of sex" it was not fatal to his claim that his additional allegations that the hazing itself was "because of sex" was not supported by evidence. J.H. v. School Town of Munster, 2016 WL 427351 (N.D. Ind. Feb. 03, 2016).

An Oklahoma school district prevailed on summary judgment in a case filed by a female student who was targeted for an inappropriate relationship by her history teacher.  The student argued that the school should have been on notice of the teacher's conduct as a result of an incident in which a custodian discovered the teacher and student together in a locked classroom with the lights off.  While in fact that teacher had been kissing and touching the student behind the locked door, the teacher provided a plausible explanation for this situation when he was asked about it by school officials (the locked door he said was the result of on active shooter drill, the lights off because he was using a projector). In light of the teacher's response, the court determined that the custodian's discovery of the locked/dark classroom did not provide the school district of actual notice of the teacher's inappropriate conduct and that it was reasonable to take no further action against the teacher other than warn him not to be alone with students in the classroom. Later, when school officials received additional evidence of the teacher's conduct, they acted immediately to suspend the teacher and begin a disciplinary process that ultimately led to his resignation, thus fulfilling their obligation under Title IX to respond reasonably to actual notice of a threat of sexual harassment,.   Roof v. New Castle Public School District No. 1, 2016 WL 502076 (Feb. 8, 2016).

A federal magistrate in Texas granted summary judgment to a school district after determining that the plaintiff did not have sufficient evidence that school district's response to peer harassment was tantamount to deliberate indifference.  The plaintiff, an 11-year-old boy, was harassed by fellow students because he had "breasts like a girl" and other physical characteristics that allegedly made him appear less masculine and gay to his classmates.  In light of uncontested evidence that the school district took some disciplinary action in response to reports of bullying, the magistrate determined that school officials could not have been indifferent, even though the response was (at least arguably) too weak to curtail the bullying in question. Nor did it matter that the school district (again, arguably) failed to comply fully with its own anti-bullying policy. Concluding that the school district "should have done more" does not determine whether the school was deliberately indifferent. Drawing this distinction, the magistrate determined that the school district could not be liable under Title IX.  K.S. v. Northwest Indep. Sch. Dist., 2015 WL 9450853 (E.D. Tex. Dec. 1, 2015).