A Texas federal court has turned down the Wylie ISD’s request to dismiss a lawsuit alleging a violation of Title IX through student-to-student sexual harassment. The decision carries two important lessons for school districts about potential liability in this area.
First, Settlement Agreements come in at least two sizes. There are complete settlements and there are partial settlements. This one was a partial settlement. The dispute began when the parents filed for a special education due process hearing, alleging a denial of FAPE. They settled that part of the case with the district, signing an agreement to drop their request for hearing and releasing the district from liability. But not all liability. The Agreement only released claims related to IDEA and the provision of a Free Appropriate Public Education. The Settlement Agreement specified that “this Release does not include claims that are unrelated to the provision of a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) pursuant to IDEA.” Thus the subsequent litigation over Title IX came as no surprise.
Second, it’s really important for teachers to report sexual harassment and document that they have done so. This is a rare case. In cases like this the plaintiff usually alleges that school administrators were told of the harassment and failed to take action. But here, there are no allegations that the superintendent, the principal or even an assistant principal were informed. Instead, the allegations are about what teachers knew, and what they failed to do about it. Based on this, the court held that there were sufficient allegations in the suit that the district “knew” that the plaintiff was being harassed.
Here’s how the court explained its reasoning that the WISD “knew” that the plaintiff was being harassed:
Plaintiffs’ primary factual allegations that Defendant was aware of the harassment stem from the fact that teachers were present in the room or hallway where harassment and bullying routinely occurred but did nothing to intervene.
Moreover, none of the bullying or assault happening in front of teachers was reported to the school district or administration.
Consider: if it had been reported to the administration, then there would be clear evidence that the school “knew.” But the court holds the school responsible even though there was no evidence that the acts of bullying and assault were reported to the principal. In fact, the failure to report is used as evidence that the school district “knew” what was going on.
This is only a preliminary ruling. The plaintiffs have a heavy burden of proof in this case and the district retains many theories of defense. There are also many facts yet to be developed. At this stage (Motion to Dismiss) the court is required to accept the facts as alleged by the plaintiff and to give the plaintiff every benefit of the doubt. But the fact that the Motion to Dismiss was denied based exclusively on what teachers allegedly did (and did not do) should be a sharp warning to school administrators. Don’t let your teachers ignore instances of bullying or gender-based harassment. Make sure that this stuff is reported, and that you document how you responded.
The case is Prendergast v. Wylie ISD, decided by the federal court for the Eastern District of Texas on December 20, 2018. We found the judge’s ruling at 2018 WL 6705536. That ruling affirms the Report and Recommendation of the Magistrate Judge which is at 2018 WL 6710034.
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Tomorrow: The lasting effects of The Little Red Haired Girl’s Rejection of Charlie Brown.