The National School Boards Association (NSBA), joined by the Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE), filed a “friend of the court” (amicus) brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in the case of Doe v. Board of Education of Prince George’s County. At issue in the case is the standard that courts should use to hold a school district liable for money damages under Title IX for the alleged harassment and sexual assault of a student by another student. Title IX is a federal civil rights statute that prohibits sex discrimination in education programs receiving federal funds.
A 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, developed a clear and stringent standard in peer-on-peer sexual harassment cases that only when school officials are deliberately indifferent to severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive harassment of which they have actual knowledge are school districts liable for monetary damages.
“School officials who know their students and local circumstances are in the best position to respond to reports of sexual harassment in a way that makes sense,” said NSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel. “The Davis standard recognized the importance of school officials retaining the flexibility to make professional judgments about how to address discriminatory peer harassment.” In its amicus brief, NSBA and MABE seek the Fourth Circuit’s support of the judiciary’s long-standing deference to school officials’ decision-making about maintaining safe, harassment-free learning environments for students.
The parents offered guidance documents from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) – along with “expert” reports and testimony – to support their claim that the school district did not do enough to investigate the reports of harassment and would have been able to prevent the alleged subsequent assaults had they done so.
“The legal argument for liability in this case is contrary to existing law,” said NSBA General Counsel Francisco M. Negrón, Jr. “Unfortunately, this argument relies in part on confusing statements from OCR, which NSBA has warned previously would lead to more lawsuits needlessly filed against school district based on an incorrect legal standard.”
In their brief, NSBA and MABE make clear that the parents’ approach departs from established legal doctrine on deliberate indifference and is one that the Supreme Court has rejected. The effectiveness of the district’s response as judged in hindsight, based solely on “expert” evaluations made after the fact and recurrence of harassment is insufficient to establish deliberate indifference.
“We have to get this important case right,” added Gentzel. “School personnel who have exercised appropriate professional judgment in carrying out their day-to-day responsibilities cannot live in fear of lawsuits that second-guess their decisions, especially when those decisions are based on Supreme Court precedent.”