School District Strikes Out
On October 24, 2022, the Eastern District of Texas overruled a school district’s objections to the Report and Recommendation of a magistrate judge denying the district’s motion to dismiss. Ultimately, the court ruled that coaches may be “appropriate persons” with actual knowledge satisfying one element of a Title IX complaint. A Brownsboro ISD student, through his parents, filed a Title IX lawsuit against the district. The suit alleged the district was deliberately indifferent to student-on-student sexual harassment on the baseball team.
Under Title IX, a plaintiff must show that a district (1) had actual knowledge of the harassment, (2) the harasser was under the district’s control, (3) the harassment was based on the victim’s sex, (4) the harassment was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively barred the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit, and (5) the district was deliberately indifferent to the harassment. In this case, the magistrate judge determined the student sufficiently pleaded all five elements. Brownsboro ISD challenged elements one, four, and five.
In reviewing the district’s objections, the court must determine whether the district had “actual knowledge,” specifically whether the student reported the misconduct to an “appropriate person” as defined by Title IX. The student in this case alleged the head baseball coach knew of the “time-honored hazing tradition” and “sexually hostile educational environment” among students on the baseball team. Further, it was alleged the head coach was present and witnessed an incident on the team bus wherein senior students sexually assaulted the complainant.
Brownsboro ISD argued that a baseball coach could not be an appropriate person for purposes of reporting sexual harassment within the meaning of Title IX. However, the court disagreed, noting that whether a district employee is an “appropriate person” is a question of fact. Further, the court noted “the appropriate person must have the authority to both ‘repudiate th[e] conduct and eliminate the hostile environment.’” Here, complainants alleged the coach was responsible for all discipline related to the team, could have stopped the practice of hazing, and held the offending students accountable.
Similarly, the court rejected Brownsboro ISD’s arguments related to elements four and five determining that the student alleged a long-standing tradition of hazing and sexual harassment which preceded the bus incident. Additionally, although the district responded to the bus hazing incident, the allegation of hazing traditions could amount to deliberate indifference. As a result, the court denied Brownsboro ISD’s motion to dismiss, and allowed complainants to move forward with their suit.
While it is unclear at this time whether Brownsboro ISD’s defense will be successful, the court’s denial of its motion to dismiss is an unfortunate reminder to take reports of sexual harassment seriously. It is important to ensure all employees, including coaches, receive adequate training on their obligations to report, investigate, and address each instance of sexual harassment. Further, training on the Title IX complaint process will no doubt prove helpful in the event your district encounters a similar situation. The attorneys at Leasor Crass have created in depth Title IX documents and training to help ensure school districts comply with both federal and state laws concerning sexual harassment.
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If you have any additional questions about Title IX, sexual harassment, or any other issue, please do not hesitate to contact the attorneys at Leasor Crass.