Who Is an Appropriate Official With Authority in the K-12 Setting?

By: Tanyka M. Barber, Senior Associate, TNG Consulting

Doe v. Edgewood Indep. Sch. Dist., 964 F.3d 351 (5th Cir. 2020)

PROCEDURAL HISTORY: 

Jane Doe filed suit against the Edgewood Independent School District (“the District”) alleging that the District was deliberately indifferent to known adult-on-student sexual harassment under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and failed to train District employees, had insufficient sexual harassment policies, and insufficient employee hiring policies and practices in violation of 42 U.S.C. §1983. The District moved for summary judgment which the District Court ultimately granted in favor of the District. Doe appealed the District Court’s decision and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

SUMMARY OF FACTS:

  • In 2012, Jane Doe was a freshman at Memorial High School, a school within the Edgewood Independent School District.
  • Shortly thereafter, a peace officer at the school began sexually harassing Doe by professing his feelings for Doe, detaining Doe in his office, and touching and groping Doe.
  • In 2013, Doe’s chemistry teacher began raping Doe which resulted in Doe becoming pregnant.
  • The school’s peace officer, who was also sexually harassing Doe, learned about the chemistry teacher’s sexual abuse of Doe, but failed to report or take any action to stop the harassment. Rather, the peace officer used this information to coerce Doe into engaging in sexual acts with him.
  • In January 2014, the school initiated an investigation of the teacher for allegations that a male student came to his home. The investigation was inconclusive as it revealed the male student’s parents dropped the student off at the teacher’s home to work on a school project.
  • The peace officer and teacher’s sexual harassment of Doe continued until March 2014 when the peace officer and teacher were both arrested.

FINDINGS AND SIGNIFICANT ISSUES:

  • In rejecting Doe’s claim that the District was deliberatively indifferent in responding to her sexual harassment, the Court cited the liability standard outlined in Gebser to find that the District did not have actual knowledge of Doe’s sexual harassment.
  • While the peace officer was aware of the teacher’s harassment of Doe, the peace officer was not an appropriate District official with the authority to institute corrective action to address the harassment.
  • The peace officer’s ability to enforce the law and to arrest the teacher was authority empowered to him by the State of Texas and was not sufficient to provide the peace officer with the requisite authority to repudiate the conduct and eliminate the hostile environment on behalf of the District. Moreover, the peace officer’s inability to hire, terminate, discipline, or make decisions to bind the District was indicative of the fact that he did not have the authority to institute corrective actions on behalf of the District.
  • Merely having a duty or obligation to report sexual harassment, which the vast majority of school employees do, was found by the Court to be insufficient to make an individual an appropriate official with authority to institute corrective action noting that the “bulk of employees” generally are not considered appropriate individuals who can impute notice to the District under Title IX.
  • The peace officer’s knowledge of his own harassment of Doe did not serve to impute notice to the District. Similarly, the peace officer’s knowledge of the teacher’s sexual harassment of Doe did not constitute meaningful notice to the District such that the District was in a position to remedy the discrimination given that the peace officer’s own misconduct with Doe would have been discovered had he reported the teacher’s misconduct with Doe. 
  • The District is only liable for its own misconduct and not that of its “rank-and-file” employees or other third parties and there was no evidence to show that the District’s “practical control” over the peace officer was “sufficiently close” such that his actions constituted intentional discrimination by the District. Thus, the peace officer’s failure to report the harassment does not rise to the level of deliberate indifference by the District such that the District would be subject to liability under Title IX.
  • The Court was not persuaded by Doe’s argument that the District’s knowledge of the January 2014 allegation involving the teacher served to put the District on notice that he posed a risk of substantial harm under Title IX, finding that the allegation did not involve any sexual misconduct and was “not the type” sufficient to put the District on actual notice that the teacher was engaging in sexual relations with Doe or any other student.  
  • The Court also rejected Doe’s argument that the District was deliberately indifferent and subject to municipal liability under §1983 because its hiring policies failed to account for the peace officer’s prior arrest 30 years ago, connected with his previous employment, when the District hired him. In so doing, the Court found that the District’s hiring officer was not a “final policymaker” and it was the peace officer’s actions, and not the District’s hiring policy, that was the actual cause of Doe’s sexual abuse. Additionally, the hiring officer’s single decision to hire the peace officer did not constitute an official policy of the District nor was there evidence to show a “strong connection” between the peace officer’s background and the sexual harassment of Doe. The Court noted that while the hiring officer may have been negligent in failing to investigate the peace officer’s previous employment and criminal history, a respondeat superior theory of liability is not recognized under §1983.

KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • This case underscores the differences between what is required for a K-12 recipient to prevail in a private right of action under Title IX and what is required for a K-12 recipient to be in compliance with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights administrative enforcement standards under Title IX.
  • Although the Fifth Circuit rejected the notion that the majority of school employees are appropriate officials with authority to implement corrective action and serve to put a school on notice, this is in direct contrast with the 2020 Title IX regulations which expressly mandate that notice to any K-12 employee serves to put the school on notice. Whether the 2020 regulations change this analysis for future courts remains to be seen, as this case arose well before the regulations took effect.
  • School resource officers (SROs) are present in many K-12 school districts. And, most districts have a protocol in place whereby the SROs do report to the school any information relative to sexual harassment of which they become aware. This should not change and in fact, should be formalized in an MOU with the local law enforcement agency. Such an MOU can serve to clearly communicate the SRO’s reporting obligations, scope of the authority, and when and how information will be shared between law enforcement personnel and school officials. Sometimes, SROs are employed by the district, and in other cases, they are municipal employees. This may make a difference to the actual knowledge analysis, as well.
  • Although the actions of the District’s hiring manager in failing to investigate the employment and criminal history of an employee who subsequently sexually harassed a student were not found to be violative of §1983, schools should be mindful of the potential for liability under a state-based negligent hiring, supervision, and/or retention tort claim, to the extent that immunity may not apply.

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