Court Declines to Take Case On Districts' Role in Abuse By Teachers

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The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to hear the appeal of a Virginia man who had sought to hold a school district partially responsible for years of sexual abuse he suffered from his 6th grade teacher.

The long-running case involving Jackson Baynard, now a 22-year-old college student, and the 11,000-student Alexandria, Va., district reached the high court just as there is a renewed debate over institutional handling of sex- abuse cases. Several Roman Catholic dioceses are struggling with allegations that they mishandled cases of priests' abuse of minors over many years.

While the justices' March 25 action was not a ruling on the merits of the case, it left in place a federal appeals court ruling that makes it more difficult for plaintiffs in some states to hold districts responsible for sexual abuse by teachers. That same lower-court ruling, however, upheld a six-figure judgment against the school principal in the Virginia case for not responding to clues that the 6th-grade teacher was engaged in sexual abuse.

Mr. Baynard's abuse began in 1990, when he was placed in the Barrett Elementary School classroom of teacher Craig Lawson, according to court documents. Within a month, Mr. Lawson was fondling Mr. Baynard in the boys' restroom, the documents say, and the teacher's sexual activity with the student continued until Mr. Baynard graduated from high school. The teacher had become a family friend, taking Mr. Baynard on skiing trips and other activities where the sexual activity continued, the documents say.

Mr. Baynard alleged in his lawsuit that the principal of Barrett Elementary, Catherine Malone, had received a report in early 1990 from a former student of Mr. Lawson's that he was abused by the teacher 15 years earlier. The lawsuit also alleged that the principal failed to respond to reports that Mr. Lawson frequently had students such as Mr. Baynard sit on his lap or had other close physical contact with students in the classroom and hallways.

The Principal's Role

According to court documents filed by the school district, Ms. Malone gave little credibility to the report from the former student because he did not want to go to the police. She increased her monitoring of Mr. Lawson after the reports that he was in close contact with students, but "she mistakenly believed the risk of abuse by Lawson to be insubstantial," the district said.

Mr. Lawson left the Alexandria district voluntarily at the end of the 1990-91 school year.

When Mr. Baynard reached college, he cooperated with police in a wiretap operation that led to Mr. Lawson's arrest and conviction on sex-abuse charges, according to court papers.

Mr. Baynard sued the Alexandria school district and Ms. Malone, along with the district superintendent and an assistant superintendent, in 1999. The suit alleged violations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which forbids sex discrimination in federally financed education programs, and deprivation of Mr. Baynard's civil rights.

The superintendent and assistant superintendent were dismissed from the case, but a jury awarded Mr. Baynard $700,000 from the school district and $350,000 from the principal. The trial judge threw out the jury's verdict holding the district liable, but allowed the judgment against the principal.

In a ruling last fall, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., affirmed that the school district could not be held liable under Title IX. The 2-1 ruling said that top school administrators in Alexandria did not have "actual knowledge" that a student was being abused, and thus the district itself could not be held liable under Title IX.

The appellate court nevertheless upheld the $350,000 civil rights verdict against Ms. Malone. The court was unanimous in holding that the principal "exhibited deliberate indifference" to the evidence of "potential misconduct" by Mr. Lawson.

In their appeal to the Supreme Court, lawyers for Mr. Baynard said that lower courts have had trouble "interpreting what constitutes 'actual notice'" of sexual misconduct, and that the 4th Circuit's standard is too stringent. The 4th Circuit covers Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The appeal was Baynard v. Alexandria City School Board (Case No. 01- 955).

Vol. 21, Issue 29, Page 32

Published in Print: April 3, 2002, as Court Declines to Take Case On Districts' Role in Abuse By Teachers
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