Rumors? Do we have to act on rumors???

Ever since the landmark case of Doe v. Taylor ISD, school officials have been on notice that there are certain kinds of rumors that should not be ignored.  Specifically, it is dangerous to ignore rumors that a school employee is sexually involved with a student.  The latest lesson along these lines is the very short, bare bones decision from the 5th Circuit in the case of Terry v. Kinney.

The issue before the court was the Motion to Dismiss filed by three school officials. The suit alleged that all three were supervisors of the teacher/coach who had plead guilty to having an “improper relationship” with a student.  The suit alleged that all three of these defendants were aware of what was going on, and responded with deliberate indifference.  The suit alleges that one of the three defendants “was told by [the student] herself about rumors that [the student] was pregnant with [the teacher/coach’s] child.”  Another defendant allegedly “knew of the multitude of rumors concerning….[the teacher/coach] having an improper sexual relationship.”  The suit further alleges that each of these two defendants “failed to take action in response to the rumors.”

This suit has a long way to go, but at this stage, the court held that there was enough for the case to go forward. The Motion to Dismiss was denied.  The plaintiff will have the opportunity to prove the truth of those allegations about the supervisors.

When I was a young lawyer, the conventional wisdom was that we did not take action with regard to rumors.  I think that continues to be good advice…about many kinds of rumors.  But when the rumors are about a sexual relationship involving a school employee and a student, a supervisor ignores rumors at his or her peril.  When you hear rumors about something like this, ask yourself: “if this turns out to be true, how serious is it?”

If the answer is: “very serious,” then go to work.  Track down those rumors. See if there is truth behind them.  Take action. Document what you are doing.

The case is Terry v. Kinney, decided by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on September 22, 2016.


 File this one under: LIABILITY