Seventh Circuit Clarifies When School Districts May Be Liable Under Title IX for Employee-Student Sexual Abuse

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Illinois schools, in C.S. v. Madison Metropolitan School District, held that a school principal’s response to an employee’s alleged conduct involving a student was not so unreasonable as to amount to deliberate indifference to sex discrimination, and thus the school district was not liable under Title IX.

At issue, a middle school student brought legal action against her former school district under Title IX, alleging that a middle school principal failed to prevent a school security assistant from sexually abusing her while she was in 8th grade. Critically, there was no evidence that anyone witnessed or knew of the alleged misconduct during the student’s 8th grade year, and the student did not report the alleged abuse until she was in high school.

The test adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court for Title IX sex discrimination claims, from Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, 524 U.S. 274 (1998), requires a plaintiff to show that a school district official with authority to institute corrective measures had (1) actual notice of a teacher or employee’s misconduct and (2) acted with “deliberate indifference” in response. Applying the Gebser test, the Seventh Circuit concluded the school official “with the authority to take corrective action to end the discrimination” was the principal. Because the parties agreed the principal had no knowledge—actual or otherwise—of the alleged abuse during 8th grade, the Seventh Circuit determined the abuse claim would fail under the first prong of the Gebser test “if eighth grade were the whole story” in this case.

However, the Seventh Circuit’s analysis did not end there because 8th grade was not the whole story. Rather, the student further alleged that during her 7th grade year, several employees reported to the principal that they were concerned about incidents they witnessed involving the security assistant, including seeing the employee giving back rubs to students, allowing the student to visit his office after school, hugging the student, and refusing the student’s attempts to kiss him on the cheek. In response, the principal told the security assistant to “limit” the “hugs and physical contact” with the student, avoid interacting with the student in private settings, and set “strong boundaries” in his relationship with the student. For the remainder of the student’s 7th grade year and the entirety of her 8th grade year, the principal neither observed nor received reports of further concerns about the student’s relationship with the security assistant.

Nevertheless, the student alleged the security assistant sexually abused her for the entire 8th grade school year behind closed doors and, thus, sought to hold the school district liable for the security assistant’s alleged conduct during her 8th grade year based on the principal’s knowledge of their relationship in 7th grade—a relationship the student says reflected a pattern of grooming behavior on the security assistant’s part.

The Seventh Circuit rejected the student’s argument, holding the principal’s response to the security assistant’s alleged conduct was not so unreasonable as to amount to deliberate indifference; thus, the school district was not liable under Title IX. In support of its decision, the Seventh Circuit emphasized that once a school district has actual knowledge of discrimination, Title IX requires it “to take action to end the harassment or to limit further harassment.” The Seventh Circuit found the principal’s discussion with the security assistant satisfied any such obligation, and the record shows she reasonably believed she had succeeded in minimizing his physical contact with the security assistant since she received no further reports raising new concerns. As a result, the Seventh Circuit held that no reasonable jury could conclude that the school district was aware it was administering its program in violation of the condition inherent in Title IX—its promise to the federal government not to use federal funds in a discriminatory manner.

Although the school district was not found liable in this case, the Seventh Circuit emphasized that as a practical matter, the best course for school officials is to “err on the side of taking reactive and preventative measures to ensure compliance with Title IX” when they observe or become aware of inappropriate conduct.

We also note that in Illinois, various State laws impose additional requirements related to how schools must respond to reported sexual misconduct by a school employee. For a discussion of one of the newest requirements, see our article here on Public Act 102-702, which goes into effect July 1, 2023.

For questions about this case or Title IX, please contact Jennifer Rosenberg in our Students/Special Ed practice group.

Source: C.S. v. Madison Metro. Sch. Dist., No. 17-1521, 2022 WL 1466249 (7th Cir. May 10, 2022)