What’s the difference between favoritism and grooming?

We’ve all learned that “grooming” does not always refer to how we dress and style our hair.  We now know that it has a more ominous meaning.  It refers to the process whereby sexual predators prepare children to accept the unacceptable.  In a recent federal court decision, the plaintiff claimed that an elementary school teacher groomed a young boy and eventually had a sexual relationship with him. 

The plaintiff pointed out that many teachers had noticed that Ms. Singer seemed to take a particular interest in the boy, showing him favoritism in a variety of ways.  However, no one suspected or reported sexual abuse. Why would they?  The relationship was understandable.  Ms. Singer’s son was the boy’s best friend and they spent a lot of time together, some of it in the teacher’s home.  In fact, the boy went on a vacation with the Singer family in the summer.   The boy’s mother “was a single mom and did not know many people, but she felt comfortable allowing [her son] to spend time at the Singers’ house with [his friend] because Ms. Singer taught at the school, so [the mother] trusted her.” 

Wow. Let’s just let that sentence sink in for a moment.  How many variations of that have we heard over the past years?

The mother was comfortable because the woman was a teacher at the school…..

The family never suspected wrongdoing because the man was a priest….

He was the choir director, and everyone loved him.  Why would we suspect?

She’s a great coach…we never thought…..

In a case like this, the liability of the teacher is a straightforward issue.  Did the teacher do what the student alleges? If it can be proved, there will be liability.  But what about the school district that employed this person? That’s more complicated.  The district is not liable under Title IX just because it happened. The plaintiff has to show that the district had actual knowledge of the misconduct and effectively shrugged its shoulders. The legal term for that shoulder shrug is “deliberate indifference.”

In this case the court cleared the district of any liability because the district did not know about the alleged sexual abuse until the boy told his mother about it, which led to Ms. Singer’s arrest.  Key Quote:

Prior to Ms. Singer’s arrest, there were no allegations of sexual harassment. While [various school employees] all noticed Ms. Singer and [the boy’s] close relationship, not one suspected, let alone reported, sexual abuse.

The court quoted an earlier decision noting that “any contact between an adult and a child could be grooming behavior, but that does not mean that all contact is sexual harassment under Title IX.”

It’s a shame that the criminal behavior by a handful of teachers casts doubt on the actions of all teachers. Teachers are encouraged to take an interest in the children they serve, to find what is special about each one, and to nurture and encourage that gift.  In a word, teachers are encouraged to love the children they teach.  But, of course, it has to be the right kind of love. 

If we see grooming, we have to report it.  This case reminds us that favoritism is just that—it’s showing a preference for a particular child. But it’s not grooming. Both need to be addressed, but it’s important to be specific about what is going on.

This one is Reagans v. Grapeland ISD, decided by the federal court for the Eastern District of Texas on February 6, 2023. It’s cited at 2023 WL 1781802. I’m pleased to let you know that Meredith Walker and Craig Wood of our law firm represented the district in this litigation.


Got a question or comment for the Dawg?  Let me hear from you at jwalsh@wabsa.com

Tomorrow: spring break!!