Monday, July 29, 2013

The Limits of Federal Law in Protecting Students from Sexual Harassment

In Hill v. Madison County School Bd., 2013 WL 3712330 (N.D.Ala.,2013), a female student filed Title IX, Equal Protection, Substantive Due Process, and various state law claims against the school district and its employees for an alleged sexual assault/rape by one of her male classmates.  The facts of the case are extensive.  It suffices to say that the male student had been disciplined in some form or another for around a dozen different incidents.  Most of the incidents were non-sexual in nature and were directed at different students.  A few, however, were sexual in nature and disciplined by in-school suspension and a short term suspension.  

Eventually, his sexual advances and harassment were directed at plaintiff.  The first few times, she did not notify the school, but when he asked her to meet him in the bathroom for sex, she told two teachers.  The teachers then concocted a plan whereby the girl would agree to meet him in the bathroom so that they could catch the boy in the act.  They also informed a principal of this plan, who apparently did nothing to stop or prevent the plan.  The plan, however, went awry because the teachers did not get to the correct bathroom in time  When the arrived, the boy had already pulled down the girl's clothes and attempted to have sex with her against her will.

The federal district court, however, rejected the girl's Title IX claim, finding that district officials were not on actual notice of sexual harassment toward the plaintiff, nor were they deliberately indifferent because they had responded to all known acts in the past.  The court rejected the equal protection claim for similar reasons.  The most troubling holding, however, was the rejection of the substantive due process claim.  While the Supreme Court in DeShaney v. Winnebago rejected the argument that the state has any general freestanding duty to protect individuals from harm perpetrated by third parties, two exceptions exist: when the state has a special-relationship with the victim or the state created or enhanced the danger.  The court rejected both exceptions.  The student-school relationship has been deemed insufficient to trigger this special relationship, which is consistent with other precedent.  I find it hard, however, to agree with the district court that this concocted plan did not place the victim in more danger.  The teachers who came up with the plan were not agents of the school, but they did relay it a principal, who is an agent.  The fact that they went to the principal shows they would not have gone through with the plan had the principal not, at least, tacitly consented to the plan.  And the girl certainly had no intention of going through with the plan, but for the teachers' urging.  Of course, this says nothing of the fact that the school presumably had enough information to punish the boy at that moment.  Why they needed to "catch him in the act" is beyond me.  Nonetheless, the court rejected liability on this theory.

The only ground upon which the court permitted her claim to proceed was a negligence/wreckless conduct theory.


Cases, Gender | Permalink


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