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No Actual Knowledge: Court Dismisses Deliberate Indifference Claim

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

A parent would understandably be upset if she found that her child had a romantic or sexual relationship with his or her teacher, but can the parent (or child) bring a deliberate indifference suit against the school under Title IX for failing to prevent the abuse?

The answer, according to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, depends on how much school officials actually knew.

The Seventh Circuit Court affirmed dismissal of a Title IX sex discrimination case against a Wisconsin school district on Monday, finding that school officials didn't have actual knowledge of a 26-year-old teacher's inappropriate relationship with her 14-year-old student.

Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs that receive federal financial assistance. The Supreme Court has held that Title IX includes an implied private right of action, but a school district sued in a private suit under Title IX cannot be held liable on the ground of respondeat superior for an employee's violation of the statute. Instead, the plaintiff must prove that a school district official, who at a minimum had authority to institute corrective measures, had actual notice of, and was deliberately indifferent to, the employee's misconduct.

The Seventh Circuit has previously held that "actual notice" in such situations must be "actual knowledge of misconduct, not just actual knowledge of the risk of misconduct."

Here, a former St. Francis School District teacher, Kelly Sweet, exchanged suggestive text messages and kisses with one of her students. The boy's mother discovered some of the texts, and transferred her son to a private school. Sweet was fired, prosecuted, and pleaded guilty to fourth-degree sexual assault.

The child, N.R. Doe, later sued the school district under Title IX. In the complaint, Doe alleged that "reports of an inappropriate romantic relationship between Sweet and N.R. Doe, including Sweet's reciprocation of N.R. Doe's crush, and of their concern for N.R. Doe, [were] sufficient to put the School District on notice of misconduct suggesting sexual harassment."

The Seventh Circuit, however, found that these facts did not satisfy the actual knowledge requirement. Instead, the court found that the school district only had knowledge that would cause a reasonable person to investigate further, which fell "well short of recklessness in either the civil-law or the criminal-law sense."

It's worth noting that the school district did follow up with Sweet regarding claims of an inappropriate relationship with Doe, though Sweet denied the relationship.

In the opinion, Judge Richard Posner reminds us that judges have to be cognizant of how their rulings will affect academic freedom. Do you agree? Is preserving schools' autonomy more important than rooting out a teacher who makes out with her 14-year-old student?

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