5th Circuit rules on student-to-student harassment case.

Houston ISD’s prompt response to a report of student-to-student sexual misconduct was the key factor in the 5th Circuit’s ruling in favor of the district.  The court concluded that “no reasonable jury could conclude that the school’s response was clearly unreasonable.”

How did the school respond?  This all started at orientation day at the Houston High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in August, 2014.  A girl reported that she was sexually assaulted by a fellow student.  Here’s what happened next:

* The district “performed an immediate internal investigation while turning over a potential criminal investigation to the district’s police department.”

* “HISD also placed a strict no-contact order on the male student that was largely successful in preventing all contact between him and the victim and prevented any further sexual harassment.”

* An assistant principal informed the male student that if he saw the girl in the hallway “he should go in the opposite direction, that he was not to be alone with [the student] at any time, and that if [she] entered a room he was in he had to leave the room immediately.”

* All of those restrictions were also communicated to the boy’s mother.

*  The A.P. checked up throughout the semester to ensure compliance with these rules.  He met with the male student monthly.

*  The school also supported the girl, offering assistance to her for both academic and attendance problems.

Plaintiffs carry a high burden of proof in cases like this.  Proving that a sexual assault happened is one thing, but proving that the school knew about it and shrugged its shoulders is a lot harder. 

On the other hand, it’s often difficult for the school to get a case like this tossed out of court early.  That’s because if there are important, relevant, unresolved factual issues, the court will not dismiss the case. Instead, the court will deny any “Motion to Dismiss” and force the parties into an expensive and uncertain trial.  When that happens, the cost of settlement goes way up.

In its opinion, the 5th Circuit sends a signal to lower courts that they should not be timid about granting a school’s Motion to Dismiss when appropriate.  Citing an earlier 5th Circuit opinion, the court says:

There is no reason why courts, on a motion…for summary judgment…could not identify a response as not clearly unreasonable as a matter of law.

That phrase “as a matter of law” means that the court will take the matter away from a jury on the theory that “no reasonable jury” could conclude otherwise.

One more thing: “That this case involves a single instance of sexual harassment on a school campus is particularly relevant to our analysis.” In a footnote, the court cited the seminal Supreme Court ruling about student-to-student harassment:

The Supreme Court has recognized that single instances of sexual harassment typically do not involve behavior “serious enough to have the systemic effect of denying the victim equal access to an educational program or activity.”  Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999).

The case is I.L. v. Houston ISD, decided by the 5th Circuit on June 24, 2019.  We found it at 2019 WL 2591696.


Tomorrow: Have you ever promised a “neutral reference”?