Friday, February 15, 2013

School district not liable for sexual abuse, court of appeals rules

In a case decided this week out of Columbus, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to find a school district liable for the molestation of a child by a teacher, even though the teacher had previously been reprimanded for unwanted touchings. The allegations involved a fourth-grade teacher employed by Columbus City Schools. The teacher had been reprimanded consistently over the year for what amounted to more and more aggressive unwanted touchings of students, though the touchings were arguably of a non-sexual nature. In several of the instances, the teacher was reprimanded by the school district. Finally, in the spring of 2005, a student at the school reported that both she and the plaintiff of the present case, John Doe, had been touched by the teacher. The student asserted that the teacher had touched Doe on at least five occasions in the classroom. The teacher summoned the plaintiff to review his work and, in doing so, planted his hand down the plaintiff's pants and fondled his genitals. The student did not return to the school after these accusations were made. An investigation by law enforcement and child services revealed that other students had been victims of the teacher. This led to a fifteen-count indictment against the teacher for gross sexual imposition in violation of section 2907.05 of the Ohio Revised Code. The teacher entered an Alford plea for two counts 1 and was sentenced to ten years’ incarceration, surrendering his teacher’s license in the process. The student sued the Columbus City Schools’ Board of Education, the School District, the superintendent, the school principal, and the teacher, alleging violations of substantive due process, Title IX, and related state tort law claims. Analyzing these claims, the court found that the parents proved to meet the deliberate indifference burden. Deliberate indifference arises when “school officials are aware of the misconduct but do nothing to stop it, despite [the school district’s] ability to exercise control over the situation.” Horner v. Ky. High Sch. Athletic Assn., 206 F.3d 685, 692 (6th Cir. 2000). Because "the nature and severity of [the teacher's] misconduct was not ... apparent to school officials" from the previous touchings that were not sexual in nature, there was not liability on the Board of Education, the school district, the superintendent, or the school principal.