Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Title IX and Penn State

In a two-part column at Justia.com (see here and here), Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman and Pittsburgh law professor Debbie Brake examine whether Penn State is liable under Title IX for the sexual abuse committed by former Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky, who used Penn State facilities to anally rape boys he associated with under the auspices of charity that Sandusky founded.

In yesterday's column, Grossman and Brake describes the facts of the case as detailed by the Grand Jury Report. This report will be the basis for criminal prosecutions against individuals involved, including Sandusky and those Penn State officials who participated in the cover-up. As she explains, this case could also give rise to institutional liability against Penn State. It's important to hold the university liable as an institution, she argues, in order to send the message that football programs are not "impervious to the normal rules of a university."

For an institution to be liable under Title IX, the case must involve sex discrimination that is "severe or pervasive." Sexual abuse is a form of sex discrimination because it is unwelcome and motivated by the victim's sex. Moreover, the more severe the incident, the less ongoing it needs to be in order to satisfy this requirement. Courts have held that cases where a particular victim is severely abused, such as by rape, satisfy this element even it only happened to that victim one time.

Next, school officials must have actual notice of the harm and respond with deliberate indifference. If the charges in the jury indictment prove true, these elements can also be satisfied by the fact that a graduate assistant witnessed Sandusky raping a boy in the shower and reported it to head coach Paterno, who in turn reported it to Athletic Director Tim Curley. The university president and vice-president also had knowledge of Sandusky's conduct. Yet despite the fact that they also knew about a previous incident in which Sandusky bear-hugged a boy in the shower in 1998, the officials did not report this incident to the police or do anything else calculated to end the abuse. Grossman and Brake call this "textbook" deliberate indifference.

The element of Title IX liability that could prove most complex in this case is the requirement that discrimination must occur in an "educational program or activity," given that Sandusky's victims were not Penn State students and Sandusky's contact with them was through a program called Second Mile which is technically not part of the university. On this issue, it first bears noting that Title IX does not only protect students, by its terms it applies to "any person" who experiences sex discrimination in the context of an educational program. Second, even though Penn State was not officially running the Second Mile program, there may enough connection between the two to render Penn State liable. As the columnists point out, Sandusky had unfettered access to Penn State facilities even after he retired, and he used this access to provide Penn State facilities as a site for Second Mile activities. Sandusky also administered Second Mile from his Penn State office. Penn State was therefore in a position, having learned of the abuse, to exert its control over the situation once it found out about the abuse. Instead, it facilitated the abuse by allowing Sandusky to continue to use his coaching position and its privileges to provide the setting for abuse.

While the criminal charges in this case take "center stage," it will be interesting to see whether Penn State itself is also held liable under Title IX and what such a lawsuit would reveal about the relationship between sex, power, and football in society.