In the case of Brooks v. Skinner, S.D.Ohio 1:14-cv-412, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140546, three biracial students sued the school board and its employees for racial discrimination and harassment. The students alleged that they were subjected to racial epithets on a daily basis and that the school personnel were indifferent to that harassment.
A federal court held that a jury could conclude that the school board was indifferent to the harassment. Specifically, the court found that, while the school board disciplined the offending students, widespread racial harassment continued and the school board knew its response to the harassment was inadequate. In spite of this knowledge, the school board failed to take further steps to eliminate future harassment according to the court.
In Peterson v. Kramer, S.D.Ohio 3:13-cv-187, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19938, a student alleged that the administration and school board violated Title IX, which provides that a federal funding recipient may be liable for the deliberate indifference to student-on-student harassment.
A federal appeals court rejected this claim, finding that the school board responded to complaints of harassment promptly and reasonably. Specifically, the school board notified law enforcement after the second incident of harassment and, after the third incident, placed a surveillance camera near the student’s locker. In addition, the only student who was identified as having made racially harassing statements was promptly disciplined, the school board offered accommodations in an effort to protect the student from future harassment, and the school board agreed to implement sensitivity training for the staff.
In Stiles v. Grainger Cty., 6th Cir. 15-5438, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 5595, a student was involved in a series of verbal and physical altercations with other students over the course of two school years. School officials investigated each complaint and responded by disciplining the students found culpable and taking other practical measures such as placing the student in different classes from his alleged harassers. Despite these efforts, the child continued to have problems with other students, culminating in an attack in the school bathroom that led to the child transferring to another school.
The student sued the school board alleging a Title IX claim. A federal appeals court held that the school officials did not violate Title IX because, each time the student or his mother communicated a complaint of harassment, the school promptly investigated the complaint by interviewing students and teachers, taking notes, and viewing video when available. At the conclusion of each investigation, the school disciplined students found guilty of wrongdoing and took proactive steps to reduce opportunities for future harassment.
These three cases are instructive for administrators on how to avoid liability for student-on-student harassment. In Brooks, the administrators disciplined the individual harassers but did not take any proactive measures or implement any new procedures when it became clear that their reactive response did not deter others from engaging in harassment. In contrast, the administrators in Peterson and Stiles took specific proactive measures to eliminate future harassment.
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Authors: Matthew John Markling and Patrick Vrobel