District Not Liable for ‘Passing the Trash,’ Court Rules

By Mark Walsh — January 26, 2010 2 min read
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An Illinois school district that allegedly concealed a teacher’s record of sexually abusing students was not liable when the teacher continued to abuse students in another community, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The McClean County school district in rural Illinois employed Jon White as an elementary schoolteacher from 2002 to 2005, when according to court papers he inappropriately hugged female students, wrapped his legs around them, showed them sexually suggestive photographs, had students massage him, and more.

The McClean County district decided to get rid of White, but allegedly concealed his record of complaints, offering a severance agreement that let him quietly resign and providing a falsely positive letter of recommendation that resulted in “passing” him to the Urbana school district, according to court papers. Working as a teacher In Urbana from 2005 to 2007, White continued his pattern of sexual misconduct. In 2007, White pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse of two of his McClean County students and eight of his Urbana students, court papers say.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of one of the Urbana students sought to hold the McClean County district liable under Title IX, alleging that the first employer’s concealment of White’s record of abuse amounted to a deliberate indifference to the safety of the Urbana students. The suit also raised claims under Illinois law.

The suit was dismissed by a federal district court, and in a Jan. 22 opinion, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, upheld the dismissal.

“Even assuming that the defendants had actual knowledge of a risk that White would sexually abuse Urbana students, they still lacked the requisite control over such harassment to incur Title IX liability,” the court said in Doe-2 v. McClean County Unit District 5. “White harassed Doe-2 in Urbana several months after he left the McLean County School District, meaning that these McLean County defendants lacked authority to take remedial action.”

The court said expanding the private right to sue under Title IX to include a “teacher-harasser no longer in its control” would discourage “school officials from quietly shuffling abusive teachers on to another district.” But under Supreme Court precedents on sexual harassment of students, districts may only be held liable for known acts of harassment subject to their control, the court said.

The court also rejected any liability for the McClean County district under Illinois law.

Education Week‘s Caroline Hendrie reported extensively in 1998 on school employee abuse of students, including this story specifically about “passing the trash.” Hendrie updated her series in 2003.

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