The dismissal of two recent federal cases filed in the Western District Court of Pennsylvania involving allegations of sexual abuse by school employees underscores the need for appropriate school district officials to take prompt action in response to complaints.

First, in Maier v. Canon-McMillan School District, 2009 WL 2591098 (W.D. Pa. 2009), a female high school student and her family filed suit against the District, Superintendent, High School Principal, girls’ softball team coach and a former volunteer girls’ softball coach and employee in the District’s IT Department, Justin Bedilion.  The suit alleged claims based on violations of Title IX, Section 1983 and the Pennsylvania Constitution arising out of a sexual relationship between the female student and Bedilion following her participation on the girls’ softball team.  The student’s parents learned of the sexual relationship after examining their daughter’s cell phone records and finding a staggering number of calls made between Bedilion and their daughter at all hours of the day.  The suit alleged that the District and its officials failed to investigate the allegations and that the District created or permitted a sexually hostile environment for the female student.

The case was assigned to District Judge Gary Lancaster, and following discovery, Judge Lancaster granted the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the District, its Superintendent, the Principal and the coach and dismissed the suit.  Judge Lancaster identified the following undisputed facts: (1) The High School Principal spoke to Bedilion upon his appointment as volunteer coach in 2005 and instructed him to avoid circumstances which might give rise to inappropriate actions; (2) In the fall and winter of 2005, the District became aware that coaches of various sports, including girls’ softball and including Bedilion, were providing rides in their personal cars to practices, games and home to players; (3) The coaches were immediately directed to discontinue this practice; (4) The coach received a complaint concerning Bedilion goofing around and calling players, but there was no allegation of any sexual or other inappropriate relationship underlying those allegations; (5) They were investigated, and Bedilion was counseled regarding his behavior; (6) The same day the student’s parents complained about the phone calls, the Superintendent met with them, suspended Bedilion from his activities and further contact with the team and secured his resignation from the team and his IT position; (7) Prior to the phone call from the parents, no one had filed any allegations of sexually inappropriate conduct against Bedilion.  On these facts, Judge Lancaster found that there was no knowledge or deliberate indifference on the part of the District, but to the contrary, the District acted promptly at the first sign of any complaint.  Thus, the District did not violate the student’s rights as a matter of law.

Second, in Haines v. Forbes Road School District, 2009 WL 89323 (W.D. Pa. 2009), the families of two female students within the Forbes Road School District brought suit alleging Section 1983 liability on the part of the District for sexual assaults perpetrated by a history and earth science teacher upon an eighth grade female and a ninth grade female during the 2005-2006 school year.  The assaults occurred in the teacher’s classroom and classroom closet, and on some occasions, the teacher gave the eighth grade student a hall pass to come to his room, where he would assault her.  The two incidents of ongoing assault were discovered within a two-day period in March 2006 after the ninth grade student reported the abuse to the School Secretary and was asked to complete a harassment complaint.  The District’s Superintendent and School Principal were alerted to the allegations and investigated them promptly, resulting in the teacher’s suspension from his teaching duties within a few days.  The families alleged the District had failed to train its personnel to adequately respond to the allegations, and sought to impose liability under Section 1983 on that basis.

The case was assigned to Chief Judge Yvette Kane, and following the completion of discovery, Judge Kane granted the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the District.  The record developed in discovery demonstrated that the District responded promptly to the students’ complaints, and there had been no previous allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct against the teacher.  There had been a prior allegation of inappropriate sexually-related comments by the teacher, and some suggestion of rumors or other stray remarks by students concerning the teacher’s conduct.  Judge Kane found that these did not rise to the level necessary to create liability on the part of the District.  Judge Kane found that the alleged failure to train must be causally connected to the harm suffered by the female students, and Judge Kane found that the plaintiff families were unable to show that rigorous training would have prevented the harm suffered by the students.  Thus, the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden.  However, a note of interest is that the plaintiffs limited their cause of action against the District to failure to train under Section 1983.  It is possible that the uninvestigated allegations of inappropriate comments might have given rise to a claim for a Title IX violation.

In conclusion, these two cases demonstrate that school districts can protect themselves from liability by acting promptly and thoroughly in response to complaints of sexual impropriety.  To ensure that your district is prepared to act promptly and thoroughly, administrative staff must review with building-level personnel the relevant district policies regarding harassment and abuse and the investigative procedures and protocols in place in the event that a complaint is received.  In this arena, an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.

Alfred C. Maiello
Alfred Maiello

Alfred C. Maiello is the founding member of MBM and has represented area school districts as solicitor for 50 years. He counsels school districts and educational institutions on leading developments in school law and guiding them through their day-to-day and long-term challenges.