Did the Student’s Tragic Suicide Result from the District’s “Deliberate Indifference”?

This case, Ramos v. Webb Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist., No. 17-40826, 2018 WL 2422503  (5th Cir. May 29, 2018), arose out of the tragic death of O.R., a minor child allegedly involved in an improper relationship with one of his high school teachers.  The alleged relationship came to light when a teacher saw O.R. hugging the teacher.  The matter was reported and the principal and superintendent undertook an investigation.  Within days, however, O.R. committed suicide.

The parents filed suit alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”). Finding that the family had produced no evidence demonstrating that either WCISD or its officials acted with deliberate indifference, the trial court dismissed the suit.  The parents appealed.

The Fifth Circuit observed that while the standards for school district liability under § 1983 for a failure-to-train claim and Title IX differ slightly, both required the parents to show that either the district or its officials in charge of supervising the teacher acted with deliberate indifference.

The court of appeals affirmed dismissal because of the lack of deliberate indifference and here’s why:

  1. The district had policies to prevent teacher-student relationships and trained its staff regularly;
  2. The teacher who observed O.R. hug the teacher “immediately” reported it to his principal;
  3. The principal and superintendent promptly investigated, taking statements, talking to O.R., and questioning the alleged perpetrator;
  4. The superintendent placed the teacher on administrative leave pending the investigation;
  5. The principal continued to observe O.R. at school for any abnormal behavior;
  6. The superintendent engaged law enforcement and asked an SRO to talk to O.R. to make sure he was okay.

According to the appeals court, deliberate indifference is a high standard.  To act with deliberate indifference, a school official must know of and disregard an excessive risk to the student’s health or safety.  It’s more than negligence or even gross negligence.  Instead, the conduct “must amount to an intentional choice, not merely an unintentionally negligent oversight.”  Moreover, even if a school official has actual knowledge of a substantial risk of harm to a student, if he responds reasonably to that risk, he will not be held liable even though the harm ultimately occurs.


Tomorrow:   Would a court ever look at your work emails?