Prompt School Responses Result in Dismissed Title IX Claims

Two federal courts recently dismissed unrelated Title IX claims against two Michigan school districts involving teacher-student sexual relationships. Irvin v Grand Rapids Pub Schs, Case No. 1:14-cv-1161 (WD Mich, September 27, 2016); Campbell v Dundee Cmty Schs, Case No. 15-1891 (CA 6, October 13, 2016). These decisions provide helpful guidance to school officials on how to respond to allegations of inappropriate teacher-student relationships.

Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally-funded educational institutions and, thus, requires a school district to take “corrective action” to end known sexual relationships between teachers and students. A school district has Title IX liability exposure if: (1) sexual abuse of a student by a school employee has occurred, (2) a school official with sufficient authority had actual notice that the abuser posed a substantial risk of abuse to students, and (3) that school official acted with deliberate indifference. The third element of this analysis is often the most critical.

In the Grand Rapids litigation, a parent informed a high school teacher that students were “discussing inappropriate texts” between teacher Jamila Williams and several students. This information was reported to the assistant principal, who immedi­ately notified the school district’s public safety department. The public safety officer could not verify the texts and forwarded the information to the police department. Williams was not interviewed at that time.

One week later, a parent of an involved student confronted Williams at school about “inappropriate texting” and “messing around” with students. Williams reported this parent’s allegations to the assistant principal, who relayed the information directly to the police department. When the police opened a criminal investi­gation that same day, another parent said that her son was also sexually “involved” with Williams. The principal immediately sus­pended Williams, directing her to leave school premises and to not communicate with students. The superintendent sent a letter to parents encouraging anyone with information concerning the al­leged incidents to contact the police. Williams was later convicted of criminal sexual conduct with five students.

Those five students sued the school district, claiming that school officials had actual notice of the abuse and that their failure to respond constituted deliberate indifference. For actual notice, a school official must be aware of a substantial risk of the actual type of abuse; mere notice of inappropriate behavior is insufficient. De­liberate indifference is a clearly unreasonable response based on known circumstances that makes students more vulnerable to ongoing abuse.

The federal court held that, without knowledge of specific incidents, allegations of inappropriate teacher-student texts were not sufficient to alert school officials to potential sexual abuse. The assistant principal did not have actual notice until Williams informed the assistant principal of her confrontation with the parent and the specific allegation of “messing around” with students.

The court also determined that school officials were not deliberately indifferent. After obtaining actual notice from Williams’s report, the principal contacted the police and suspended Williams that same day. Deliberate indifference generally requires a delay of weeks or months, not hours or days.

School officials promptly notified the police, removed Williams from the premises, and closely followed the police investigation. Since the school’s response was not clearly unreasonable, the court found that its lack of an independent investigation did not establish deliberate indifference.

In the Dundee Community Schools litigation, middle school basketball coach Richard Neff secretly engaged in a sexual relationship with Jane Doe, one of his basketball players. The school’s athletic director received complaints from a parent that Neff showed preferential treatment toward Jane at practice and that Jane had a “crush” on Neff. Other parents also complained that Neff texted girls on the team and habitually sat with them in the back of the bus for road games. The athletic director instructed Neff to stop texting his players and sitting with them in the back of the bus.

One day after school hours, the janitor found Neff and Jane engaging in a sex act in the janitor’s closet. The janitor immediately called the athletic director, who in turn called the superintendent, the police, and Child Protective Services. Neff was arrested and later convicted of criminal sexual conduct.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling that the parental complaints did not provide the athletic director with actual notice of the teacher’s sexual misconduct. Sitting in the back of a bus with students was not synonymous with a sexual relationship. Even the parent who complained about Jane’s “crush” was shocked to learn of the sexual relationship. The Sixth Circuit relied on case law precedent that knowledge about communications at odd hours, inappropriate counseling, and unchap­eroned activities does not constitute actual notice. The athletic director did not have actual notice until the janitor reported sexual activity, at which point the athletic director immediately contacted police.

School officials have a duty to act at the first sign of potential sexual abuse. This responsibility includes responding to allegations of sexual misconduct in a timely manner and interviewing the reportedly involved parties. Upon receiving a complaint, school officials should promptly conduct an independent investigation without relying solely on a police investigation. A prompt and thorough investigation may be crucial to preventing or ending further sexual abuse and avoiding liability.