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  • Federal Judge Finds Michigan School District Liable for Failure to Train Staff on Title IX

    Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney held that the Forest Hills School District, located near Grand Rapids, Michigan, can and will be held liable for its failure to provide Title IX training to staff on proper measures for addressing allegations of sexual violence.

    By way of brief background, pursuant to Title IX, upon notice of a claim of sexual misconduct, schools that receive federal funds are required to take prompt and effective action reasonably calculated to end the misconduct, prevent its recurrence and remedy its effects. Schools must adopt and publish grievance procedures that allow for a prompt and equitable investigation into claims of sexual misconduct and “all persons involved in implementing a recipient’s grievance procedures (e.g., Title IX coordinators, investigators, and adjudicators) must have training or experience in handling complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence, and in the recipient’s grievance procedures.”[1] Educators must also receive training on how to recognize a claim of misconduct and what to do if a claim of sexual misconduct is reported.

    In the instant case, the alleged victim, a then 15-year-old student, known only as “Jane Doe,” reported to school officials that she had been sexually assaulted in the school’s band room on November 3, 2010. According to Jane Doe, after receiving notice of this claim, the School District failed to take immediate or proper responsive action which resulted in her suffering further injuries. For example, Jane Doe and the accused student continued to attend school together and Jane Doe endured continued direct harassment by the accused for the remainder of the school year. Further, classmates allegedly harassed Jane Doe online and chanted crude shouts to her at basketball games.

    In response, District officials claimed that the local police precinct asked them not to investigate on their own accord until after the criminal investigation was complete.

    In 2013, Jane Doe filed suit, alleging that the school violated Title IX by displaying deliberate indifference to her claim of sexual violence. On March 31, 2015, U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney granted Jane Doe’s motion for summary judgment and minced no words in criticizing the District’s failure to protect her. If the district had completed “an independent investigation and either punished or exonerated [the accused]…. the issue likely would have “blown over” much more quickly.”

    Jane Doe “has shown the district’s complete failure to train its employees on how to respond to sexual assault complaints and sexual harassment was deliberately indifferent and caused her injury” said Judge Maloney. “(Superintendent Dan) Behm admits that the District did not provide any training to its employees about how to respond to sexual assault complaints. (Anne) Edsenga, who was tasked as the Title IX coordinator, likewise did not have any significant training on how to handle sexual assault allegations.”

    Analogizing to the work of other public safety professions, the Judge claimed that, “Just like failing to train a police officer on when to use his or her gun, failing to train a school principal on how to investigate sexual assault allegations constitutes deliberate indifference. It is inevitable that these situations would arise at some point, and the complex Title IX requirements virtually ensure than any investigation without any formal training would be deficient.”

    Preparation and prevention are far more effective at reducing the risk of sexual assault than an OCR investigation or litigation. Especially in light of this case, we encourage schools to provide regular Title IX training to students, educators and all members of the school community on how to properly recognize, prevent and respond to allegations of sexual misconduct. Not only do school officials need to know how to recognize and prevent claims of sexual assault, they must also know what to do if a claim occurs and what investigative steps to take if claims are made.

    If your institution would like more information on how it can ensure compliance with Title IX during this new era of enforcement, please contact James G. Ryan at jryan@cullenanddykman.com or at (516) 357 – 3750.

    Thank you to Nathan Boone, an intern at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for his assistance with this blog post.

    [1] Dear Colleague Letter 2011.