District Not Liable For Student Sexual Assault By Principal When Principal Concealed The Abuse

Salazar v. South San Antonio ISD, Dkt. No. 15-50558 (5th Cir. June 15, 2017).

The elementary school principal in the South San Antonio Independent School District frequently removed the student from lunch or physical education classes and took him to his office.  At first, he gave the student gifts and played games and then started buying him lunch.  All of this took place behind closed doors.  Eventually, the principal molested the student and the abuse continued through the student’s fifth-grade year and the following summer at a computer camp held at another elementary school within the District. During the student’s sixth-grade year, he attended middle school and the principal persuaded the boy’s parents to drive him to the elementary school, approximately twice a week, so that the principal could “tutor” the student. The family later discovered the abuse.

The parents filed suit against the District under Title IX, which prohibits discrimination in public schools on the basis of sex.  The parties stipulated before trial that the principal was the only District employee or representative who had actual knowledge of the abuse at the time it occurred and that the abuse violated the District’s policies. The boy’s parents reported the sexual abuse to the San Antonio police, the District fully cooperated in the ensuing investigation, and the District terminated the principal’s employment. The man ultimately pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault and was sentenced to eighteen years in prison.  The jury in the parent’s civil suit found in favor of the family and awarded $4,500,000.  The District appealed.

On appeal, the issue was whether the District could be held liable when the only District employee with actual knowledge of the abuse was the perpetrator.  The court of appeals observed that liability under Title IX arises not from the discrimination or harassment itself but from “an official decision” by the District not to remedy the violation.  To hold the district liable, someone with authority to take corrective measures over student harassment must have actual knowledge of the harassment and then act with deliberate indifference.

The appeals court concluded in this case that Title IX does not impose liability upon a District when only the perpetrator had actual knowledge of his sexual harassment of the student, even if the perpetrator was authorized to institute corrective measures in response to sexual harassment by others.  The court stated that “requiring a recipient of Title IX funds to respond in damages when its employee sexually abuses a student and the only employee or representative of the recipient who has actual knowledge of the abuse is the offender does not comport with Title IX’s express provisions or implied remedies.”  Thus, while the abuse suffered by the student was “heart-wrenching,” the District was not liable because no District employee other than the perpetrator had actual knowledge of the abuse.

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Photo by Carlos Martinez on Unsplash

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