A U.S. District Court in Massachusetts has allowed a legal claim against city and school administrators for peer-on-peer sexual harassment under Title IX. Several of the plaintiff’s other claims were dismissed, but the Title IX harassment claim was allowed to proceed. The case will be pursued in the U.S. District Court.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination and harassment in education:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

In Harrington v. City of Attleboro, student Noelle Harrington alleges years of sexual harassment from school bullies and, along with her mother, is suing the school district. Harrington attended Brennan Middle School in Attleboro from 2008 to 2010, where she first experienced harassment from a student who repeatedly called Noelle offensive names related to her sex and to sexual stereotyping. Two other students joined in the name calling as well. The bullying escalated to a physical assault, resulting in bruising, a sprained ankle, and a fractured wrist. The Harringtons had notified school principals, assistant principals, and the school psychologist and were told that the problems would be dealt with. They also contacted the Attleboro Police Department, who said that this was a school issue and did not intervene.

The name calling and comments continued when Noelle went to Attleboro High School in 2010. As a matter of school policy, documentation of the boys’ conduct was not transferred from the middle school. Noelle was placed in classrooms with the same boys, and the harassment continued by them and other students as well. In January 2012 the school prepared a “Safety Plan” for Noelle, giving her the right to report harassment to administrators, to access the nurse “in times of stress,” and to leave class early in order to avoid the students in the hallways. In February 2012, the student who had physically assaulted Noelle in middle school followed her from the library to her home. When her mother told a school administrator, she was told that the school would not address this conduct because it occurred outside of school and off the school property. Also that month students shined a laser pointer into Noelle’s eyes. She went to the nurse, who contacted Noelle’s mother. The Harringtons again contacted the police department and were told that the school police officer would have to handle the complaint. The Harringtons allege that the school police officer failed to respond to their complaint. The Harringtons then informed school administrators that they wanted to transfer Noelle to another school but allege that the school did not assist in placing Noelle elsewhere. When Noelle posted on Facebook about suicide, her mother consulted a crisis team, who instructed Noelle not to return to the high school. Noelle was registered at a treatment center for psychotherapeutic care. Her mother withdrew her from school on March 1, 2012.

Harrington v. City of Attleboro is a Title IX claim on the basis of sexual harassment – which includes sexual stereotyping – in education. To state a claim under Title IX for student-on-student sexual harassment, a plaintiff must show the following elements:

  1. He or she was subject to “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” sexual harassment by a peer.
  2. The harassment caused the plaintiff to be deprived of educational opportunities or benefits.
  3. The funding recipient (the school) knew of the harassment.
  4. The harassment took place in school programming or activities.
  5. The school was deliberately indifferent to the harassment such that the response, or lack of a response, was unreasonable given the nature of the known circumstances.

In allowing this claim to proceed, the US District Court acknowledges that the Harringtons have a plausible Title IX claim. Allegations for sex-based discrimination must show that the harassment was because of the person’s sex. The court noted that the students’ conduct was severe, not just “tinged with offensive sexual connotations,” and appears to be based on sexual stereotyping, such as appearance, mannerisms, and sexual preference.

The standard of deliberate indifference is stringent and requires more than allegations that a school should have done more. However, the First Circuit has suggested that a school’s failure to take additional measures after its initial measures were ineffective might constitute deliberate indifference. In Harrington v. City of Attleboro, the district court allowed this Title IX claim because the Harringtons’ allegations suggest that the school “failed to take additional reasonable measures after it learned that its initial remedies were ineffective.”

What This Means to Your District

The standard of deliberate indifference is not simply a standard of doing nothing to prevent discrimination or harassment. A school may take action yet the action not be found reasonable given the known circumstances. As the known circumstances increase and intensify, the action the school takes should increase and intensify accordingly. Ennis Britton attorneys are available for consultation with Title IX issues as with other school-related issues.

Harrington v. City of Attleboro, — F.Supp.3d –, (D. Mass. 2016) 2016 WL 1065804