Title IX Peer Harassment Claim Allowed to Proceed

The parents of an intellectually disabled student in the Houston Independent School District sued the district and the student’s teacher alleging Title IX and constitutional violations.  According to the suit, the school knew of the student’s cognitive and emotional deficits and assigned his teacher to escort and supervise him between classes and when going to the bathroom. In 2018, another student allegedly sexually assaulted the boy repeatedly in a bathroom.  Even after he allegedly told the teacher about the assaults, no action was taken. The assaults continued for several weeks, until another teacher found the two students in a bathroom stall.

The teacher and the district sought dismissal of the suit.  The trial court dismissed the constitutional claims against the teacher based upon the teacher’s entitlement to qualified immunity, which protects government officials from civil damages liability when their actions could reasonably have been believed to be legal.  According to the Court, the failure to protect an individual against private violence simply does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause, unless the state has created a “special relationship” with a particular citizen, requiring the state to protect him from harm, such as in the case of an incarcerated individual.

The suit did not plausibly allege a special relationship between the student and teacher. Qualified immunity also precluded the “state-created-danger” theory – when a state official uses his or her authority to create a dangerous environment for the plaintiff and acts with deliberate indifference to the plight of the plaintiff.  The Fifth Circuit has never recognized a state-created-danger theory of liability and the law was not clearly established to put the teacher on notice that her actions were unlawful.  The court dismissed the claims against the teacher.

However, the Court allowed the Title IX claim against the district to proceed.  To state a claim under Title IX for student-on-student harassment, a plaintiff must allege that the district is: (1) deliberately indifferent to the sexual harassment or assault; (2) of which it  has actual knowledge; and (3) that the harassment or assault is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victim of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.

The court determined that the suit sufficiently alleged that the teacher was authorized to take corrective action to prevent the misconduct, that she was informed of the assaults, and that she failed to take corrective action. Thus, HISD was not entitled to dismissal of the Title IX claim.  I.M.  v. Houston Indep. Sch. Dist., No. CV H-20-3453, 2021 WL 2270271, at *1–4 (S.D. Tex. June 3, 2021).

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