Court Dismisses Title IX Peer Harassment/Bullying Suit

Sexual harassment of students, whether it be by an employee or another student, is prohibited under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.  Title IX states that “[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

A school district that receives federal funds may be liable for student-on-student harassment if the district (1) had actual knowledge of the harassment, (2) the harasser was under the district’s control, (3) the harassment was based on the victim’s sex, (4) the harassment was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively barred the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit, and (5) the district was deliberately indifferent to the harassment.

In I.F. v. Lewisville ISD, a published decision out of the Fifth Circuit, the parent of a student sued the school district for peer sexual harassment and bullying under Title IX.  The harassment first arose from an off-campus party in which the student claimed she was sexually assaulted by two other students. The alleged perpetrators maintained that the encounter was consensual.  The female student then alleged ongoing bullying and harassment in the weeks following, including name-calling, Twitter posts, retweets, and harassing Instagram posts by fellow students.

The school district requested judgment in its favor prior to trial and the court granted the request.  According to the court, the evidence was insufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact to show that the district was deliberately indifferent to the alleged sexual assault or the bullying following that incident.

The record showed that, while the district delayed its investigation into the alleged assault, it did so in deference to law enforcement pending a police investigation.  Despite the delay, the record showed that the district conducted an extensive investigation of the assault within a reasonable time. After reviewing the evidence, the district decided that it could not substantiate the student’s claims of sexual assault.

The district’s responses to the bullying and cyberbullying complaints were reasonable as well. At one point the district interviewed nineteen students.  One of the allegations resulted in the suspension of one student who admitted to creating harassing Instagram posts. During this time, the district also actively worked to provide the student classwork and support so that she successfully finished the school year.  According to the Court, the district’s actions were not clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances. Judgment was entered in the district’s favor.

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