Law & Courts

How Liable Are School Districts for Student-on-Student Sexual Harassment?

By Mark Walsh — May 20, 2022 4 min read
Image of a gavel
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A federal appeals court ruling focuses new attention on the duties of school districts to prevent and respond to student-on-student sexual harassment, especially in an era when sexually explicit content is spreading easily on social media.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, has revived two Title IX sexual harassment cases alleging that the Nashville school district failed to respond adequately to incidents in which videos of female high school students engaged in sex acts with male students were circulated on social media.

The appellate panel ruled 2-1 to reinstate the claims against the Nashville district over incidents in 2016 and 2017.

The majority cited evidence that the school district, over a four-year period before the incidents in question, had documented 950 instances of sexual harassment and more than 1,200 incidents of inappropriate sexual behavior, with many cases involving “students taking and/or distributing sexually explicit photographs or videos of themselves or other students.”

And the district allowed school principals to handle responses to such incidents and did not involve the district’s Title IX coordinator, despite federal guidance that the coordinator should address all complaints involving Title IX issues, the court said in its May 19 decision in Doe v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County.

The dissenting judge said the majority’s ruling was a “significant enlargement of school district liability for student-on-student sexual harassment under Title IX.”

Title IX rules on sex harassment are under scrutiny

The decision comes at a time when legal and regulatory guidance is in flux for Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars sex discrimination in federally funded schools. The Biden administration is rewriting formal regulations on Title IX, including how schools should respond to sexual assaults and harassment. And just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court asked the administration to submit its views in a pending appeal by a Virginia school district in a Title IX case involving the district’s response to alleged sexual assault of a student by another student on a school bus trip.

The Nashville case involves a female student, identified in court papers as Jane Doe, who was a high school freshman in 2016 when four male students “brought unwelcome sexual activity” to her, as the court described it, in a school stairwell. A video of the incident circulated among students, court papers say. The student soon transferred schools.

The other incident involved a freshman at a different Nashville high school identified as Sally Doe. In 2017, she was led to a restroom by a male student and pressured into performing oral sex, court papers say. School administrators learned the students were in the bathroom together, but Doe said that nothing more than kissing had occurred. More than a month later, a video of the sexual incident was posted on Instagram. When Doe’s mother went to an assistant principal, the administrator told her the incident was now a criminal matter and that she should contact police. (The 6th Circuit decision does not detail whether any police investigation ensued.)

Both girls sued the district under Title IX. A federal district court granted summary judgment to the district. But the 6th Circuit court, in its decision this week, revived both girls’ cases.

The court characterized the girls’ claims as having two theories of liability. One related to the district’s actions before the alleged incidents involving them, and the other involving the district’s response after their incidents were reported to them.

In reviving the suits bases on the “before” theory, the appeals court cited the evidence of the large number of student-on-student sexual harassment claims that had been documented in the four years before 2016.

“As the disciplinary records cited by Jane Doe and Sally Doe demonstrate, MNPS was aware of issues with sexual harassment in the school system well before the two students reported their incidents,” Judge Julia Smith Gibbons wrote for the majority.

To hold that the district was not liable under a separate 6th Circuit precedent about isolated sex harassment incidents “would defeat Title IX’s purpose of eliminating systemic gender discrimination from federally funded schools.”

When it came to the girls’ “after” theory, the court said the school district had potentially responded inadequately to both incidents.

“A reasonable jury could conclude that, rather than take steps to remedy the violation, MNPS opted to avoid the problem,” the court said regarding Sally Doe’s claims.

Writing in dissent, Judge Ralph B. Guy Jr. said the majority had misapplied several Supreme Court and 6th Circuit precedents on sexual harassment in schools.

“The urge to want to blame someone for failing to prevent the sexual misconduct inflicted on Jane in the stairwell and Sally in the bathroom—albeit by different perpetrators at different high schools—and the subsequent peer-to-peer sharing of videos of those encounters cannot justify supplanting or side-stepping what is required to hold a school district liable under Title IX,” Guy said.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Start Strong With Solid SEL Implementation: Success Strategies for the New School Year
Join Satchel Pulse to learn why implementing a solid SEL program at the beginning of the year will deliver maximum impact to your students.
Content provided by Satchel Pulse
Teaching Live Online Discussion Seat at the Table: How Can We Help Students Feel Connected to School?
Get strategies for your struggles with student engagement. Bring questions for our expert panel. Help students recover the joy of learning.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Science Webinar
Real-World Problem Solving: How Invention Education Drives Student Learning
Hear from student inventors and K-12 teachers about how invention education enhances learning, opens minds, and preps students for the future.
Content provided by The Lemelson Foundation

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Why Some Religious Groups Worry After Supreme Court Sided With Praying High School Coach
Concerns arise about equal treatment of students and employees from minority religious groups after a ruling on a Christian coach's prayers.
5 min read
Globe with two ethnic characters holding symbolism for various world religions.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Law & Courts Supreme Court Says High School Coach's Post-Game Prayers Protected by the First Amendment
The decision could have enormous practical consequences for school districts and their supervision of teachers and other employees.
9 min read
Joe Kennedy, a former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash., poses for a photo March 9, 2022, at the school's football field. After losing his coaching job for refusing to stop kneeling in prayer with players and spectators on the field immediately after football games, Kennedy will take his arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, April 25, 2022, saying the Bremerton School District violated his First Amendment rights by refusing to let him continue praying at midfield after games.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of former Bremerton (Wash.) High School assistant football coach Joseph A. Kennedy that his post-game prayers were protected by the First Amendment.
Ted S. Warren/AP
Law & Courts At the Supreme Court, High School Students Express Disappointment Over Abortion Decision
Students showed up to flex their civic muscles in the wake of the court ruling.
4 min read
From left, teenagers Sonia and Lilia Oulamine march outside the Supreme Court on June 24, 2022.
From left, Sonia and Lilia Oulamine march outside the Supreme Court on June 24, 2022.
Eesha Pendharkar/Education Week
Law & Courts What the 'Roe v. Wade' Reversal Means for Educators, Schools, and Students
The decision will dramatically reshape the context of schooling for the women-dominated profession—as well as affect students, counselors, and health curricula.
7 min read
Anti-abortion and abortion-rights protesters gather outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday, June 24, 2022. The Supreme Court has ended constitutional protections for abortion that had been in place nearly 50 years, a decision by its conservative majority to overturn the court's landmark abortion cases.
Anti-abortion and abortion-rights protesters gather outside the Supreme Court Friday. The court issued a ruling ending constitutional protections for abortion that had been in place for nearly 50 years.
Jose Luis Magana/AP