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Principal Can Be Liable in Sexual Abuse Of Student, Court Rules

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In a Texas case being watched by school administrators nationwide, a federal appeals court has ruled that a high school principal can be held liable in a federal civil-rights lawsuit for showing "deliberate indifference'' to evidence of a teacher's sexual abuse of a student.

In an 8-to-6 decision, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that students have a "substantive'' due-process right under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to be free from sexual abuse by school employees.

The court further held in its March 3 opinion that school administrators can be held personally liable if they learn of a pattern of abuse by one of their employees and show "deliberate indifference toward the constitutional rights of the student by failing to take action that was obviously necessary to prevent or stop the abuse.''

Education groups have closely followed the case of Doe v. Taylor Independent School District. The Fifth Circuit Court, based in New Orleans, covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

'A Strong Message'

The court last year vacated a decision by a three-judge panel that had alarmed lawyers for school boards and administrators following the case.

The three-judge panel ruled that school principals and superintendents "have a duty to police the halls of our public schools to insure that schoolchildren'' are free from such harms as sexual abuse by teachers. (See Education Week, March 31, 1993.)

Lawyers on both sides of the case said that while the majority opinion of the full Fifth Circuit Court was more conservative than the panel's decision, it was still significant.

"This is a victory for people trying to protect students,'' said Brian East, a lawyer for the former high school student who brought the suit, identified in court papers as Jane Doe. "It reaffirms that the right of a student to be free of sexual abuse at school is a constitutionally protected right.''

August W. Steinhilber, the general counsel of the National School Boards Association, said he did not view the decision as a complete defeat for school administrators.

"The plaintiff still has to show there is a violation of substantive due process, which is a hard standard,'' he said. "I do view it as sending a strong message to principals and other school employees that they can be held personally liable in cases such as these.''

"This is probably the most important case we have seen at the court-of-appeals level in a long time,'' Mr. Steinhilber added.

A Pattern of Abuse

The case centers on the sexual abuse of the Taylor, Tex., high school student by one of her teachers, Jesse Lynn Stroud. Mr. Stroud has been convicted on criminal charges stemming from the abuse of the girl, who was 15 years old at the time.

The girl's federal lawsuit charges that the school principal ignored an abundance of evidence that the teacher had used his position to form a sexual relationship with the student, including frequent complaints from other teachers about Mr. Stroud's inappropriate behavior.

The girl sued the teacher, the principal, the superintendent, and the district under a Reconstruction-era civil-rights law that allows for the recovery of civil damages when constitutional rights are violated under state authority.

While the case has not yet gone to trial, the principal and the superintendent appealed a federal district judge's decision against granting them immunity.

The three-judge panel's decision upheld the potential liability of both officials. But the full Circuit Court unanimously cleared the superintendent of liability, since he did not have as much information as the principal did about the pattern of abuse.

The majority opinion by Circuit Judges E. Grady Jolly and W. Eugene Davis states that Principal Eddy Lankford showed "deliberate indifference'' by ignoring or failing to fully investigate the repeated reports of abuse.

The majority's opinion sparked three separate dissents, including one by Circuit Judge Edith H. Jones that says the majority "broadens constitutional remedies in three novel ways.''

Herman L. Smith, the current Taylor superintendent, said in a statement that the district and plaintiff have been working on an out-of-court settlement.

"The school believes strongly that we as a district and school officials have an obligation to protect students ... from cases or suspected cases of abuse,'' Mr. Smith said, adding that it was "unfortunate'' that the court found fault with the principal's actions.

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