The Second Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal appeals court covering Connecticut, New York and Vermont) has upheld the dismissal of a student’s Title IX lawsuit against a New York school district for failing to protect her from being sexually harassed by a classmate. Along with her parents, S.S., a former student in the Hastings-on-Hudson Union Free School District (the “School District”), claimed that the School District inappropriately responded to several sexually explicit emails that S.S. received through her school email account when she was a ninth-grader in the School District. The first email message was profane and disparaged S.S.’s appearance; the second (sent the next day) contained a crude sexual request; and the third declared, in explicit terms, the author’s intent to have sex with S.S. In the course of its investigation, the School District determined that the messages originated from the email account of M.X., a classmate. The School District subsequently questioned M.X., who denied sending the emails and claimed other students had gained access to his email password. The School District disabled his account and changed his email password. Although the School District never conclusively determined the sender of the inappropriate emails, S.S. received no further offensive emails and finished the year with high academic honors.
S.S. and her parents sued the school district, claiming, among other things, that school officials violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 by failing to protect S.S. from sexual harassment. A federal district judge dismissed the suit, and the Second Circuit affirmed. The Second Circuit concluded that the “trio of offensive emails here at issue . . . falls well short of the kind of harassment found actionable under Title IX.” The Court ruled that in order to prevail on a peer-to-peer sexual harassment claim, the plaintiffs would have had to demonstrate (1) that the School District acted with “deliberate indifference” to sexual harassment (2) that was so “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” that it effectively prevented the student from accessing her education. This case reinforces the high standard for liability that applies in student sexual harassment cases. Although it is crucial that school districts respond swiftly and comprehensively to claims of student sexual harassment, liability will generally not be imposed unless a plaintiff is able to satisfy the rigorous legal standard set forth above. The full text of the ruling is available by clicking here.