Colleges Can be Liable for Student Assault, Harassment

When a college student is victimized by a fellow student, our Asheville personal injury lawyers believe it’s important to analyze whether the school’s response was appropriate, and whether the institution failed in its duty to take preventative measures.
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Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal civil rights law that bars discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity in schools that receive money from the federal government. Statutorily, sex discrimination can include sexual harassment, rape and sexual assault. When a school knows about and ignores sexual harassment or assault in its programs, it can be held responsible and compelled to pay damages to the victim.

The legal standard used to prove this is called “deliberate indifference.” However, this can be a high standard of proof, as the language is broad in a way that can shield schools from culpability. This was illustrated recently in the case of Roe v. St. Louis University, et al., reviewed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. We share this not to discourage victims, but to stress the importance of seeking counsel from a firm with a high degree of experience.

In this case, a student who was attending school on an athletic scholarship had suffered an injury and was performing poorly in her classes at the time the alleged sexual assault occurred involving another student at an off-campus fraternity house. This information is relevant for the fact that soon after she reported the assault to her coaches, she was removed from her sports team for failure to attend classes, per the terms of her academic probation.

She subsequently left school and did not return. Police launched an investigation, but no criminal charges were filed.

She and her parents later filed a lawsuit against the school (as well as the national and local chapters of the fraternity) alleging, among other things, deliberate indifference to her allegations of assault.

Summary judgement by the district court in favor of the fraternity chapters and the school was later challenged on appeal. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld the ruling, however, offering up an extensive explanation of what is required to prove deliberate indifference, and how this plaintiff failed to prove it.

In order for an institution’s actions to be deemed deliberately indifferent, the plaintiff has to show that the school either caused the harassment or made students vulnerable to it. The plaintiff needs to prove that the school had substantial control over both the harasser (or attacker) and the context in which the known harassment occurs.

Schools defending themselves in these cases have to show that they have responded to known harassment in a way that is “not clearly unreasonable.”

The court cited the case of Davis ex rel. LaShonda D. v. Monroe Cnty. Bd. of Educ., wherein students successfully sued on these grounds. There, the plaintiffs were able to show that the school failed to respond in any way over the course of five months to complaints regarding sexual harassment by another student.

In this case, the school asserts it was not indifferent to the plaintiff, and that staffers set up a meeting as soon as they learned of the incident and provided her with information on how to report the case to police and referred her to the campus counselor who handles sexual assault allegations.

The university’s response, the court concluded, was appropriate given the circumstances.

However, too often, this is not the case. Under Title IX, colleges must respond to allegations of sexual assault, even if prosecutors don’t.

Contact our North Carolina personal injury lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Roe v. St. Louis University, et al., March 25, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

More Blog Entries:
UNC Hazing Incident Highlights Personal Injury Rights, March 3, 2014 Asheville Personal Injury Lawyer Blog

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