On May 10, 2022, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion analyzing under what circumstances a school district could be held liable under Title IX (a federal statute) for alleged abuse of a student by a school employee. C.S. v. Madison Metropolitan School District.
According to the facts in the court’s opinion, during a student’s seventh-grade year at school, several employees reported to the principal that they were concerned about incidents they witnessed involving a school security assistant: the employee was seen giving back rubs to students, allowing the young girl in question to visit his office after school, hugging the girl, and refusing the girl’s attempts to kiss him on the cheek. In response, the principal told the security guard to limit physical contact and avoid private interactions with the student, advising him to set strong boundaries with her. After the student graduated from middle school, she reported that the inappropriate conduct had not stopped after the principal’s warnings: instead, she claimed that the employee’s conduct had escalated and she sued the school district under Title IX. The district court ruled in favor of the school district, and the student appealed to the Seventh Circuit.
The test adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court for Title IX sex discrimination claims requires a plaintiff to show that a school district official with authority to institute corrective measures had (1) actual notice of a teacher or employee’s misconduct and (2) acted with “deliberate indifference” in response. In this case, the Court of Appeals acknowledged that test and also noted that a school district cannot be held liable under Title IX based “solely on the knowledge of the risk of future misconduct.” Instead, a school district has liability only when the school has knowledge of past discrimination and has proven unwilling to act to end the discriminatory conduct and limit further harassment.
In this case, the Seventh Circuit also ruled in favor of the school district, finding that when the principal was notified of the earlier inappropriate interactions between the student and security assistant, she responded reasonably by counseling the employee to establish boundaries. Because no further harassment or abuse was reported to the principal following her discussion with the employee, the principal had no actual notice of abuse and no reason to expect the relationship would escalate. The school avoided a finding of “deliberate indifference” under the Title IX discrimination test adopted by the Supreme Court because the principal took actions that were reasonably calculated to bring the school into compliance with Title IX, based on her knowledge of the alleged misconduct.
While the school district was not found liable in this case, the Court of Appeals did suggest that schools “err on the side of taking reactive and preventative measures to ensure compliance with Title IX,” when they observe or become aware of inappropriate conduct.
Authored by Erin Monforti & Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink