One of the most devastating discoveries a parent can make is finding out your child has been or is being sexually abused at school. Although many sexual abuse cases are adjudicated in criminal court, a school (or school district) where the sexual abuse took place may be held liable in civil court for damages under a variety of causes of action, including Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
What Is Title IX?
Title IX is a set of vital student protections that were enshrined into law to prevent students from experiencing discrimination based on sex in schools, extra-curricular activities, and any other programs benefitting from federal funding. Title IX is administrated by the United States Department of Education, and it classifies sexual harassment and assault as prohibited forms of sex-based discrimination.
Under Title IX, schools have an affirmative duty to create and maintain an environment that is free of sexual harassment and assault. The failure to do so could expose the school to loss of federal funding and civil liability. That means you could collect damages from a school that didn’t take sufficient steps to prevent your child from being sexually assaulted while attending the school or participating in school-related activities.
What Is the Legal Standard for Proving Title IX Violations in Court?
Title IX specifically states, “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.” This prohibition requires schools to prevent sexual harassment or abuse by teachers and students.
Suppose you want to collect damages from a school violating or otherwise failing to enforce Title IX. In that case, your complaint must meet the legal standard set by the Supreme Court in the case of Davis vs. Monroe County Board of Education for a Title IX violation. That standard requires you to prove the following:
- That the sexual assault or harassment impacted the student so heavily that it prevented the student from equal access to educational opportunities at the school in question
- That the victim (or their guardian) reported the sexual harassment or abuse to the proper authorities at the school in question (e.g., the principal or school administrators, guidance counselors, teachers)
- That the school in question showed a “deliberate indifference” in responding, or more specifically, failing to respond after being made aware of the sexual assault or harassment
What Is Deliberate Indifference in a Title IX Case?
Deliberate indifference refers to a school that did nothing after being made aware of sexual assault or harassment allegations at the school or during school-related activities. Examples of deliberate indifference would include, but not be limited to, the following:
- Failure to adequately investigate the sexual assault or harassment allegations after being informed by the student or their guardian
- Failure to take reasonable steps to stop the sexual abuse
- Failure to take reasonable steps to ensure that the abuse doesn’t happen again in the future
So, for example, if school administrators were made aware that one of its sports teams had a “hazing” ritual that crossed the line from prank to sexual abuse and did nothing to investigate it, or stop the abuse, that failure to act may constitute deliberate indifference.
The Limits of Title IX Violations
Title IX is a powerful and important set of regulations, but it has limits beyond the deliberate indifference standard. First, Title IX only applies to schools that receive federal funds. So, if your child was sexually abused at a school that does not currently receive any funds (e.g., private school), you can still pursue that school for damages, but it won’t be a Title IX violation case.
Secondly, recent legal decisions have narrowed the scope of damages available for a violation of Title IX. The types of damages available for violations of Title IX include economic damages.
Third, although public schools receiving federal funding must comply with Title IX, they otherwise also have protection under what is known as “sovereign immunity.” Sovereign immunity is a legal principle that provides certain government agencies (like public schools) with immunity against civil lawsuits. In other words, you can’t sue the government or school unless the school or local government waives their immunity and allows you to do so.
Thankfully, the goal of preventing child sexual abuse and harassment at schools has become an important issue for state and local governments nationwide. That’s why there are now laws in place in almost every state designating exceptions to the sovereign immunity clause. Child sexual abuse or harassment in schools often fits one of those exceptions.
A Child Sexual Abuse Attorney Can Help with Your Title IX Case
Having a child victim of school sexual abuse or harassment is every parent’s nightmare. Under Title IX, schools must take all reasonable steps to prevent school sexual assault and harassment and to thoroughly investigate allegations of school this abuse. If you feel like your child suffered school sexual abuse and the abuse was facilitated by a Title IX violation, you can fight back.
Greenberg Gross LLP is a law firm that helps sexual abuse victims get their day in court. We help our clients hold abusers and those who facilitate abuse accountable for their actions or inaction. That includes schools and school districts that violate Title IX. If you’re not sure how to handle a school sexual abuse case involving your child, we want to help. Reach out to our team and find out how we can fight for you.