Court Reinstates Title IX Claim Against District

By Mark Walsh — April 27, 2010 2 min read
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A federal appeals court today reinstated a Title IX lawsuit against a Florida school district in a case brought by a student who said she was sexually assaulted by a math teacher who had been the subject of earlier sex-harassment complaints.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, held that the Broward County school district potentially could be found “deliberately indifferent” under Title IX for the “serious deficiencies” in its handling of student sex-harassment complaints against the math teacher.

In one incident, the math teacher at Blanche Ely High School was alleged to have made sexual advances against a female 11th grade student in 2004. The student filed a complaint with the principal, who conducted his own inquiry as well as calling in the school district’s special investigative unit. The teacher was placed on leave, but when the investigation proved inconclusive, he was allowed to return to the classroom.

In 2005, the teacher allegedly made advances toward a second student, telling her when they were alone that she seemed very “grown up” and that he liked how her lips looked.The student filed a complaint, and the principal again investigated. But school officials allegedly failed to interview a friend of the complaining student who had witnessed some of the alleged harassment, according to the lawsuit of the separate student who was later allegedly sexually assaulted by the teacher.

The principal left after the 2004-05 school year, but before he did, he gave the math teacher a satisfactory job evaluation and recommended that he be retained. The new principal at Blanche Ely High was not informed of the past complaints about the teacher, court papers say.

A student identified in court papers as Jane Doe alleged in her lawsuit that the math teacher sexually assaulted her in a classroom in 2007. This time, an investigation led to the math teacher’s dismissal. (It’s not clear from whether there were any criminal charges.)

In her suit, Doe contends that the school district’s handling of the earlier complaints amounted to deliberate indifference under the Supreme Court’s Title IX precedents and allowed the math teacher to offend again. A federal district court rejected the claim, but the 11th Circuit court panel took a different view.

“Granted, this is not a situation in which a school district made no effort whatsoever, either to investigate or to put an end to the harassment,” the 11th Circuit said in Doe v. School Board of Broward County.

But “once it was a known circumstance that [the math teacher] had been accused of multiple acts of sexual harassment in his classroom behind closed doors, ... cautionary measures [such as closer monitoring of the accused teacher] could have contributed to the reasonableness of the school board’s response,” the court said.

The court held that a reasonable jury could find that the school district’s “deficiencies” in handling the earlier incidents “caused Doe’s sexual harassment by substantially increasing the risk faced by female students at Blanche Ely.”

The case now goes back to federal district court for a likely jury trial.

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