December 21, 2017
Last Friday afternoon, a northern Indiana federal district court entered summary judgment in favor of a school corporation and two high school administrators involving a teacher sexual misconduct case. In Doe v. Tippecanoe School Corp., a mother filed a civil lawsuit alleging the school corporation and two principals violated the Constitution and Title IX when steps were not timely taken to avoid a teacher’s sexual relationship with a female student. The mother also alleged the school acted negligently.
During the second semester of her freshman year, the student struck up a mentoring relationship with a teacher, who also served as an assistant football coach. Over the course of two years, the relationship transitioned from mentoring to romantic. Warnings existed: late night text messaging and emailing, private lunches in the coaching office, a teacher assistant position offered to the student, continual visits during passing periods, discussions of personal family issues, off campus lunches and dinners, and special babysitting opportunities offered to the student by the teacher.
The interaction between the two caused many students, parents, other teachers, counselors and coaches to question the nature of the relationship. When the concern was voiced, building administrators questioned the student, the teacher, and the student’s mother. Each time, the inquiries were met with sincere denials, causing school administrators to believe only a mentoring relationship existed. While the administrators questioned the teacher about the relationship, and several other educators reminded him to “keep out of trouble”, at no time was the teacher specifically directed to end the relationship, distance himself from the young lady, or stop certain interactions with the student.
Unbeknownst to the school officials, the student and teacher had developed elaborate stories and schemes, some including the use of props and photographs, to avoid detection. The two always ensured that no one saw their inappropriate physical interactions. Until shortly before the teacher’s arrest at school, the student’s mother continued to believe her daughter’s fabrications. Shortly after the teacher’s arrest, and on behalf of her daughter, the mother sued.
Holding that no factual dispute existed, the district court found the school defendants not liable on any Title IX sexual harassment claim; the court reaffirmed the legal standard to be used in pursuing such claims. Before liability can exist, an appropriate school official must (1) possess actual knowledge of the misconduct that creates a serious risk to students and (2) have responded with deliberate indifference to the misconduct. All parties agreed that no individual possessed actual knowledge of the relationship and that no one witnessed any inappropriate physical contact between the two. The mother, however, maintained that the school corporation should have known about the illegal relationship. The district court pointed out that the standard is not that the school should have known, but one of actual knowledge of the misconduct. In the latter part of its decision, the district court acknowledged that some of the mother’s argument possessed weight: administrators could have responded better to the numerous warning signs; that, however, is not the standard to determine whether Title IX is violated. Questioning the student, the student’s mother, the teacher and others was sufficient.
If your school corporation observes similar signs of a possible, inappropriate relationship, be sure to promptly investigate, confronting the teacher, the student, and possibly the parent. If believable denials are offered, provide clear directives to the questioned teacher on what conduct is no longer permitted, such as no touching at all, no private lunches and no texting. If those directives are violated, be prepared to end the teacher’s employment. As always, be certain to timely report the relationship and the teacher’s misconduct to DCS or local law enforcement authorities.
Have a question about this decision or a similar situation in your organization?Contact Tim Shelly or Matt Schram
Warrick & Boyn, LLP, is a full-service law firm in Elkhart, Ind., that practices in all areas of business and corporate law. Areas of practice include commercial litigation, creditors’ rights and bankruptcy law, labor and employment law, defense litigation, securities law and regulation, worker’s compensation defense, education and school law, EEOC law, employee benefits law and pension plans, environmental law and regulation, tax and estate planning, municipal law, and property and real estate law. The firm’s clients are located primarily in northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan, and most of the attorneys are licensed to practice in both Indiana and Michigan.