School District not Legally Responsible for Peer Bullying

By October 13, 2014April 29th, 2015News

In Doe v. Galster, a former student of Elmbrook School District filed suit against the district and school administrators due to harassment by several classmates allegedly based on her gender and ethnicity. 2014 WL 4653063 (7th Cir. 2014). In particular, the student, Doe, argued that the harassment violated her rights under Title VI, Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause. The Seventh Circuit held that the district was not liable for the bullying because even if her harassers were motivated by her gender or ethnicity, once the district had actual notice of the harassment, it took appropriate action.

The Supreme Court has set a high standard for plaintiffs who seek to hold school districts liable for student-on-student harassment. Additionally, school districts have broad discretion in resolving peer harassment. First, to be successful, a plaintiff must demonstrate that school officials had “actual knowledge” of the harassment that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive, that it deprives him or her from access to educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school. In order to have actual knowledge of an incident, school officials must have witnessed it or received a report of it. Furthermore, in order to impose liability, a school official’s response to known harassment must be “clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.”

Here, the Seventh Circuit found that there was no evidence that any school official willfully avoided learning of serious threats to Doe’s safety or ability to obtain an education. Although school officials were aware of name-calling and a number of disputes between Doe and other students, there was no evidence that they were aware of the more serious harassment until after Doe was physically harmed. Additionally, once the district was aware of this serious matter, it conducted an investigation and recommended the harassers for expulsion.

Although the district did not provide Doe a formal safety plan, grant her request to transfer to a different school, or inform Doe’s family that none of the students who were involved in the bullying would return to the school during the following school year, the Seventh Circuit found that a reasonable jury could not find that the district’s actions were clearly unreasonable and could not find that the district responded to known acts of severe harassment with deliberate indifference. Therefore, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the Elmbrook School District and the school officials.