Court: District Wasn’t Aware of Teacher Sex Abuse

By Mark Walsh — September 10, 2012 2 min read
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A Wisconsin school district is not liable for damages under Title IX to a student who was sexually abused by a teacher because officials did not have actual notice of the misconduct, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, ruled unanimously on Monday that despite some suspicions that were raised with officials about the teacher, it wasn’t obvious to the district that there was sexual misconduct.

The ruling comes in a lawsuit against the St. Francis School District in Wisconsin brought on behalf of a 14-year-old 8th grader who received text messages and an invitation to the apartment of his 26-year-old teacher. The teacher, Kelly Sweet, has admitted kissing the boy but denies that they engaged in sexual “petting.” Sweet was fired and she pleaded guilty to fourth-degree sexual assault under Wisconsin law, court papers say.

In addition to suing the teacher, the victim and his parents alleged that district officials could have prevented the abuse and thus were liable under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars sex discrimination in federally funded schools.

Some teachers had complained to administrators about alleged inappropriate text-messaging with students by Sweet, court papers say. One teacher told the superintendent that Sweet had a form of a “crush” on the 14-year-old student. But Sweet denied any improprieties. The district fired her after the victim’s mother became aware of the apartment incident and reported it to the district.

Judge Richard A. Posner, writing for the court in its Sept. 10 decision in Doe v. St. Francis School District, said that under U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings interpreting Title IX, a plaintiff must prove that “an official of the school district who at a minimum has authority to institute corrective measures ... has actual notice of, and is deliberately indifferent to, the teacher’s misconduct.”

Posner said that “neither [the superintendent] nor the principal knew about the relationship (still in the text-messaging stage) before it culminated in the apartment visit, and indeed till after the plaintiff’s mother discovered the text messages. Nor was the relationship obvious. What the principal and the superintendent knew was that Sweet’s colleagues ... suspected an improper relationship between Sweet and the [boy]. But to know that someone suspects something is not to know the something and does not mean the something is obvious.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.