Two recent decisions from our neighbors in Indiana and Michigan provide guidance on what courts may expect from school districts responding to allegations of sexual assault. Pursuant to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), school districts that receive federal funds are required to respond effectively and to investigate incidents of reported sexual violence. According to guidance released by the US Department of Education in April 2014, if an investigation reveals that sexual violence created a hostile environment, “the school must then take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the sexual violence, eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence and, as appropriate, remedy its effects.” The guidance emphasizes that a school should not wait to take steps to protect students until after students have been “deprived of educational opportunities.” The cases described below illustrate how courts may interpret this guidance in two cases of alleged sexual assault on school grounds.
In Jane Doe v. Forest Hills School District, a fifteen year old student reported to school officials that she was sexually assaulted by another student while at school in November 2010. In response, the school district did not take any action against the perpetrator, stating instead that the local police had asked them not to conduct an independent investigation until after a criminal investigation was completed. The perpetrator was not suspended or expelled from school, and neither he nor the victim was transferred to a new school. Doe faced continued harassment at school from the perpetrator and fellow classmates over the course of the next five months. Her parents repeatedly contacted the school expressing concern over the school’s lack of action and Doe’s increasing discomfort with attending school, but the school district allegedly failed to take any interim precautionary measures to keep the perpetrator away or address continuing harassment from Doe’s peers. Doe’s parents ultimately filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which found in Doe’s favor. The parents then filed suit in federal court, alleging that the school district violated Title IX by acting deliberately indifferent to Doe’s claims of sexual assault and failing to appropriately train its staff members.
The school district asked the court to dismiss the case, but the court refused, determining that a jury could find that the assault and later harassment of Doe was so “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it deprived her of access to educational opportunities provided by the school” in violation of Title IX. The Court also granted Doe’s motion for summary judgment on the failure to train claim, finding that the school district failed to appropriately train its staff members on Title IX. The school district admitted that it did not provide any training to its employees about how to respond to sexual assault claims and that the Title IX coordinator did not have any significant training on how to handle sexual assault allegations. The Court determined that if school administrators had been adequately trained in the methods of addressing sexual assault complaints, Doe would not have suffered the injuries that she incurred. The Court drew an analogy, stating “just like failing to train a police officer on when to use his or her gun, failing to train a school principal on how to investigate sexual assault allegations constitutes deliberate indifference.”
In contrast, the Court in M.M. v. Indianapolis Public Schools determined that a school district was not deliberately indifferent with regard to its investigation of allegations of sexual assault. Here, a female sixth grade student was sexually assaulted by three male sixth-grade students in a girls’ bathroom during the school day in September 2012. As soon as the school district learned of the assault, it called the police, who interviewed all of the students involved. The school district also immediately suspended the three boys, who eventually were expelled. The victim was permitted to change schools at her request, and bus transportation was arranged for the new school. The day after the assault, a school social worker addressed the incident with fourth through sixth grade students, prohibited gossiping about the event, and offered one-on-one counseling. Presentations were later made to all students regarding bodily integrity and preventing bullying. In light of these facts, the Court determined that the school district was not deliberately indifferent with regard to the victim's sexual assault claims.
These decisions highlight the importance of regular Title IX training to students and staff members to help with identification, prevention, and response to sexual misconduct, both before and in the wake of a complaint of sexual assault at school. The cases also stress that courts are often unwilling to allow school districts to defer to police investigations of sexual assault complaints, and will instead focus on the specific steps school districts took to investigate and respond to the complaints separate and apart from any police investigation. Finally, the cases emphasize that school districts must respond effectively upon finding that a sexual assault has occurred. School districts should consult the OCR’s guidance documents on this issue and contact counsel with any questions relating to investigations and subsequent responses to sexual assault.