Court of Appeals Rules School District Not “Deliberately Indifferent”

On May 10, 2022, a federal Court of Appeals in Wisconsin upheld a District Court ruling that Madison Metropolitan School District was not liable for failing to discipline a school’s security guard who “massaged” and “full-frontal bear-hugged” students. The plaintiff (a former middle school student), alleged that a security guard, Mr. Collins, began hugging her in an inappropriate manner, frequently making contact with her chest and her “private area.” Once the plaintiff’s mother learned about the abuse she sued the school district, alleging that the district had actual knowledge of Mr. Collins’ behavior and failed’ to protect her daughter. After the District Court granted summary judgment to the school district back in 2016, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the ruling, holding that school officials “were not aware” of the behavior and that Mr. Collins’ behavior did not “interfe[re] with her education.” The Seventh Circuit eventually agreed to rehear the case en banc (before the entire Seventh Circuit bench) in 2019. During oral arguments, the plaintiff argued that the school was deliberately indifferent to the student’s abuse because it had actual knowledge of Mr. Collins’ behavior. According to the school district, upon learning about the inappropriate conduct, the school principal held a meeting with Mr. Collins, “warning him” to “set strong boundaries” and that hugs were “inappropriate,” even though school officials didn’t believe Mr. Collins’ conduct was sexual in nature. The plaintiff argued that this meeting demonstrated the school had actual knowledge of the abuse but that officials did not take enough steps to stop the behavior.

Although the court unanimously found that Mr. Collins’ hugs constituted inappropriate sexual harassment, the court held that the hugs “did not in themselves make the school liable for sex discrimination.” Rather, the court stated that under Title IX, a district’s duty to act is not “triggered until it has actual knowledge” that discrimination “has occurred or is occurring under its watch.” Relying on Gebser’s two-prong standard, the court also clarified that a plaintiff can only recover when the defendant has actual notice and acts with deliberate indifference. Ultimately, the court held that when the school principal warned Mr. Collins to “limit physical contact” with the plaintiff, the school did not demonstrate deliberate indifference and ruled it was “properly calibrated” under the circumstances.  It is also notable that Judge Scudder, the author of the opinion, commented that while the standard of liability in Title IX matters is clear, it “manifests in shades of gray” on the ground. “[A]s a practical matter – when school officials have to make decisions in real time- the best course will be to err on the side of taking reactive and preventive measures to ensure compliance with Title IX.”

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