WA school district not liable for peer-on-peer sexual harassment

The student failed to prove facts essential to prevail under his claim for sexual harassment. A federal district court in Washington, a nonbinding jurisdiction in Oregon, recently ruled that a student alleging peer-on-peer sexual harassment failed to state a valid claim based on deprivation of his substantive due process rights.

The student suffers from autism. During the 2005-2006 school year, he was subjected to sexual abuse by two other special education students. However, the student did not report the abuse, except he told his case manager that a student had asked him to hug the principal and to touch a student’s backpack. Later, an unrelated student reported an incident, at which point the school investigated. The investigation revealed year long sexual and physical abuse by the two students. The school immediately took action to prevent future occurrences, and the student suffered no further abuse from that point on. After graduation, the parents filed suit against the school district alleging violation of Title IX and Section 1983 violations of substantive due process rights.

The district court ruled in favor of the school district before the case went to trial. With regard to the Title IX claim, a student alleging peer-on-peer sexual harassment must prove: (1) he suffered sexual harassment so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it deprived him of access to educational benefits; (2) the school had actual knowledge of the harassment; and (3) the school was deliberately indifferent to the harassment. The student proved the first prong, but it failed to prove the second prong. Once the school learned about the abuse, it took immediate corrective action.  The court did not address the third prong.

With regard to the section 1983 claim for violation of substantive due process, the student’s claim failed under the general rule that a state entity is not liable for the deprivation of substantive rights caused by private individuals.

J.B. v Mead School District No. 354, No. CV-08-223 (E.D. Dist, Wash 2010).

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