On January 12th we told you about the lawsuit brewing in Alabama where a teacher’s aide came up with the cockamamie idea of using a 14-year old girl as “bait” to catch a boy “in the act” of sexually harassing her.  The plan worked—sort of. The boy took the bait and met the girl in the boys’ bathroom.  But the aide did not intervene in time, nor did anyone else. The boy raped the girl—medical evidence confirmed it.  We told you in January that the lawsuit was pending before the 11th Circuit.  Well, now we have the decision.

The court held that the school district faces potential liability for student-on-student harassment.  Furthermore, the principal, an assistant principal and the teacher’s aide all face possible personal liability.  The Circuit Court refused to dismiss claims against these parties, thus allowing the case to proceed to trial…or more likely, a very expensive settlement.

This case is incredibly sad.  For those of us who advocate for and believe in public education the case is an embarrassment.  This tragic sequence of events started with the principal’s erroneous beliefs about when he was empowered to take corrective action. The court put it this way:

Principal Blair informed other staff members, including Teacher’s Aide Simpson, that students had to be “caught in the act” of sexual harassment to impose discipline.  Assistant Principal Dunaway testified that “students in middle school, especially with the use of social media, tend to make up a lot of stories about people and if we disciplined every child for every rumor, we would have no children at our school.”

Based on these erroneous views, bad record keeping, knowledge of the boy’s rap sheet, failure to supervise him, not stopping the aide from executing this outlandish plan, and the complete failure to offer assistance, counseling or other support to the victim, the court concluded that a jury could find the district guilty of “deliberate indifference” to acts of student-on-student sexual harassment that were severe and objectively offensive.  Here’s something I hope is never said about a Texas school district:

As outlined above, the Board’s knowledge of [the boy’s] sexual harassment, its catch in the act policy, its orchestration of a sting operation using Doe as bait for [the boy’s] sexual activities, and its failure to help Doe in any way was patently odious.

For the lawyers, this case is particularly important because it provides an excellent analysis of the legal standard that applies in student-to-student cases.  The Dawg will chew on that bone next week. For today, let’s just note that there is much work to do by way of training of teachers and administrators in this area.  This case is a wake up call. We have people in positions of authority who do not understand their responsibilities. We have much work to do.

The case is Hill v. Cundiff, decided by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on August 12, 2015.