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Sixth Circuit Rules that the "Deliberate Indifference" Standard Still Matters in Title IX Harassment Litigation

By Daniel L. Eyer / Apr 18, 2016

In Stiles v. Granger County Board of Education, the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of a Title IX lawsuit against a public school district because the alleged victim of harassment and bullying failed to show that school district officials were "deliberately indifferent" to his plight. A student accused the school district of violating his rights under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and depriving him of his constitutional rights to equal protection and substantive due process under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, when the school district allegedly failed to remedy his harassment and bullying complaints.

From August 2010 to January 2012, the student and his mother repeatedly complained to school officials that the student was a victim of peer-initiated verbal bullying and physical altercations. The student's difficulties culminated in an altercation in a school bathroom that led the student to transfer to another school.

Each time the school district received a specific complaint of harassment, officials investigated promptly and thoroughly by interviewing all students and teachers involved, taking detailed notes, and viewing any video recordings. After each investigation, administrators disciplined students found guilty of wrongdoing either with a verbal warning or a suspension. The level of punishment differed based on the administrators' investigation and based on its uniform application of its student disciplinary code. Every student who was disciplined refrained from committing further abuse. Also, the school district took interim measures to prevent future harassment by separating the student in class from the known perpetrators, and the school district hired a substitute teacher to monitor the student in school.

While acknowledging that the school district's remedial actions did not stop the bullying, the Sixth Circuit affirmed that the school district did not act with "deliberate indifference" towards the bullying complaints. The Sixth Circuit also found no violation of the student's equal protection rights under § 1983 because the student offered no evidence of disparate treatment in connection with the school district's disposition of other bullying complaints from students in a protected category, such as gender or sexual orientation. Finally, the Sixth Circuit found no violation of the student's substantive due process rights because there existed no "special relationship" or "state-created danger."

A failure to respond to peer-on-peer harassment that violates the deliberate indifference standard can result in significant liability to a school district under Title IX and § 1983. While every situation is unique, the Stiles case serves as a model for satisfying the legal standard for avoiding liability in a Title IX peer-on-peer complaint. If you would like additional details about this case, or require any guidance in responding to incidents of peer-on-peer harassment, please contact your local Clark Hill education attorney.