Is the coach an “appropriate person”?

The term “appropriate” has a special meaning in Title IX cases. When a student sues the school district alleging student-on-student sexual harassment, the student must prove that an “appropriate person” in the district knew about it and failed to respond properly. So who is an “appropriate” person?

Generally speaking the higher ups in the district are more likely to be considered “appropriate.” But there is no hard and fast rule and courts have described this as a “fact-specific” inquiry. The key is that a person is “appropriate” if they have “authority to take corrective action to end the discrimination.” The court:

Put another way, the appropriate person must have the authority to both repudiate the conduct and eliminate the hostile environment.

So waddyathink: if there is hazing occurring on a school sports team, would the coach have the authority to repudiate it? To take corrective action? To end the hazing and eliminate the hostile environment?

According to a recent decision from a federal court in Texas, a baseball coach may very well fit the profile of an “appropriate person.” Since there were plausible allegations that the coach knew of the student-to-student hazing, the court refused to dismiss the case against the school district.

This is a preliminary ruling and the plaintiff still bears a heavy burden of proof. The case is about allegations of student-on-student sexual harassment on the baseball team. The plaintiff alleges one specific incident on a bus, but also a “time-honored hazing tradition” in the school and on this team in particular. Is that true? If so, how much did the coach know about it? If so, what did the coach do about it? Nothing has been decided about any of that.

But this preliminary ruling sends one clear message: inaction by a coach in the wake of personal knowledge of sexual harassment on the team can lead to school district liability. It can also lead to more sexual harassment. Those are two good reasons to make sure that coaches are doing all they can to set the right tone, provide a good example, and remain vigilant about protecting all of the kids on the team.

It’s P.S. v. Brownsboro ISD, decided by the federal court for the Eastern District of Texas on October 24, 2022. It’s published at 2022 WL 14151208.


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Tomorrow: travels of a teacher’s aide…