Mishandling Reports of Sexual Harassment Could Cost Your District Millions
by Holly James
Late last week, it was announced that USC has agreed to pay $852 million to settle claims made by 710 women alleging sexual assault and sexual harassment by a former USC physician. This is in addition to a $200 million settlement USC previously agreed to pay in a federal class action arising from similar allegations against the same employee.
This is the world of Title IX, and this is what could potentially happen when school districts and universities mishandle reports of sexual harassment. Failure to respond appropriately to these types of allegations could result in sanctions from the Department of Education or liability for money damages in court. (USC took a hit in both places.)
USC’s liability is rooted in claims that the school was deliberately indifferent to sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints about its employee. School districts are not immune from these kinds of suits.
The USC settlement is a huge number, but that is only due to the large number of plaintiffs involved. This latest settlement works out to about $1.2 million per plaintiff. That amount is not beyond the realm of possibilities in the K-12 context. There have even been some jury verdicts against school districts that are significantly higher.
It is also critical to remember that the Department of Education issued regulations last summer concerning how districts must respond to alleged sexual harassment. The regulations are quite extensive and impose a multitude of requirements on districts, including a very specific and detailed grievance process that must be used to handle formal complaints of sexual harassment.
If, and when, your district is faced with a report of Title IX sexual harassment, it is worth a call to your lawyers. We are here to coach you through the regulations to help make sure your district is in compliance. If you haven’t done so yet, we can also help with mandatory policy updates, notices, and training for your personnel to make sure you’re well-positioned before your next complaint comes in.
Above all else, remember this: Do not ignore allegations of sexual harassment. Deal with them promptly and properly. Mishandling these allegations could cost you millions, not to mention the trust of your community.