Doe v. Town of Stoughton

On April 25, 2018, the federal district court for the District of Massachusetts issued an order dismissing several claims against the Town of Stoughton, the Stoughton Public Schools Superintendent, and the Stoughton High School Principal. Those claims were brought by a former student who alleged that she was subjected to illegal sexual harassment by a teacher who groomed and abused her during her junior and senior years. The plaintiff asserted that, by allowing this to occur, the school district and its employees violated their statutory duties to protect her from harm, including duties pursuant to Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Of particular importance is the court’s order dismissing the Title IX claim against the Town (based on the acts of the school employees). To succeed on a Title IX claim, the plaintiff had to show that: (1) she was a student subject to harassment based on sex that was sufficiently severe and pervasive to create an abusive educational environment; and (2) an official who at a minimum had authority to address the alleged discrimination and to institute corrective measures on the student’s behalf had actual knowledge of the discrimination and failed to adequately respond or was deliberately indifferent to it.  The plaintiff’s complaint alleged that the Principal had actual knowledge of the abuse when another student reported to her that the teacher was providing the plaintiff with special treatment that she was spending excessive time with the teacher, and that on one occasion the plaintiff had left the school in the teacher’s vehicle.  The Principal allegedly initiated an investigation that involved questioning the plaintiff and the teacher, and it did not result in a finding of abuse.

The court noted that a showing of actual knowledge under Title IX requires that a defendant be deliberately indifferent to “known acts” of harassment or discrimination even applying the lenient rules for evaluating complaints the court found that this complaint failed to adequately allege that the Principal had “actual knowledge” of the abuse. The court ruled that allegations about the report to the Principal regarding special treatment, that the plaintiff was spending excessive time with the teacher, and that she was seen getting into the teacher’s vehicle did not amount to known acts of harassment or discrimination sufficient to establish the actual knowledge required by Title IX.  Consequently, the court dismissed the plaintiff’s Title IX claim against the Town. (It dismissed Title IX claims against the individuals because Title IX does not authorize such claims).

While this case shows the stringent requirements necessary to establish a school district’s culpable knowledge under Title IX, school districts should keep in mind that even in this case the facts were apparently enough to trigger an investigation by the school (albeit one that may have been superficial). Failure to so in light of a report indicating that harassment may be occurring could itself trigger liability. Moreover, the court did allow a claim to proceed against the Principal under the federal Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §1983 because the allegations showed that she had constructive knowledge of a grave risk of harm but failed to take “sufficient, easily available measures to address the risk”.

If you have any questions regarding the content of this update, or any other questions regarding school law generally, please contact us.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.