U.S. Supreme Court Declines Review of Teacher-Student Sexual Harassment Cases

Earlier this month the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear two sexual harassment cases of interest to school districts nationwide: (1) a case involving allegations of sexual harassment brought by a student against a teacher, and (2) a case involving allegations of sexual harassment brought by a teacher regarding the harassing conduct of a student.

In Jane Doe v. Willits Unified School District et al., an unpublished case from the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant school district. The plaintiff brought claims against the school district, its charter school, and the school director alleging sexual harassment in violation of Title IX as well as claims under California law for negligent hiring and supervision. The plaintiff student had a sexual relationship with her teacher. Both courts found the plaintiff failed to make the required threshold showing that the school’s response to the conduct was “deliberately indifferent.”

“Deliberate indifference” may be found if “a reasonable fact-finder could conclude that the [school]’s response was clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.” (Oden v. N. Marianas College (9th Cir. 2006) 440 F.3d 1085, 1089.) In Doe v. Willits, the court found the school’s director took immediate, appropriate action upon learning of the sexual relationship. Specifically, the director reported the relationship to Child Protective Services, contacted the sheriff, and placed the accused teacher on paid administrative leave. As stated above, the U.S. Supreme Court denied review of the Ninth Circuit’s decision in this case.

The U.S. Supreme Court likewise declined to review Andersen v. Rochester City School District, a federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals case. In Andersen, the plaintiff teacher alleged she was harassed by a student outside of school, which created a hostile environment at work. The court found the plaintiff failed to prove the conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to permeate the workplace and alter the conditions of her employment. Specifically, the student was never in any of the plaintiff’s classes, and nothing in the record indicated the two ever interacted at school. The court found “no reasonable jury could find [the student’s] entirely out-of-school conduct” had the effect of creating a hostile work environment for the plaintiff. Moreover, the court found the plaintiff’s complaints to school administrators could not “have provided them with reasonable notice that she was complaining about workplace sexual harassment…as opposed to requesting additional safety precautions in light of a student’s out-of-school harassment.”

While the Supreme Court has yet to issue specific guidance to school districts regarding sexual harassment claims between teachers and students, several precautions may be taken to ensure any such allegations are dealt with swiftly and diligently. While there are no bright-line rules, there are some reasonable standards to follow. For example, a complaint of sexual harassment should never be ignored, and such complaints should be investigated in a timely and comprehensive manner. (See Donovan v. Poway Unified Sch. Dist. (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 567, 610.) If harassment is found, administration must take timely and reasonable measures to end the harassment. (Id. at 611.) If a chosen method proves ineffective at ending the harassment, more effective measures need to be taken. (See id. (citing Vance v. Spencer County Public Sch. Dist. (6th Cir. 2000) 231 F.3d 253, 262).) Moreover, if the allegations involve criminal activity or abusive conduct against a minor, law enforcement and/or Child Protective Services should be contacted immediately.

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