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How Title IX Protects Students from Sexual Abuse and Harassment at School

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Too often, students who are sexually abused or harassed by their peers, teachers, or coaches at school receive little help from their educational institutions. Worse still, when confronted with allegations of sexual abuse, school administrators sometimes side with the abuser. Title IX gives victims a chance for justice. The law allows abuse victims to sue and recover money damages from educational institutions that show indifference to allegations of sexual abuse or harassment. More than forty years ago, Congress passed Title IX as part of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972. The law was originally meant to break the glass ceiling women faced at American institutions of higher learning. Over time, though, Title IX has evolved into a powerful weapon for victims of sexual abuse and harassment. Title IX gives students the right to sue schools for indifference to abuse by fellow students, teachers, and other school employees. Teachers and school administrators are also protected under Title IX from sexual abuse and harassment at work. There are several requirements for a successful Title IX lawsuit. First, only schools that receive federal funds are subject to the law. Second, an “appropriate school official” must have actual notice of the alleged abuse or harassment. Third, the school official must respond to the allegations with “deliberate indifference.” All public schools receive federal funds, and are thus subject to Title IX liability. But what if the victim was abused at a private school? Luckily for abuse victims, many private schools receive federal funds. In one Pennsylvania case, for example, a judge allowed an abuse victim to sue a private catholic high school under Title IX because the institution took federal subsidies for a school lunch program.

Title IX cases often involve the question of who an “appropriate school official” is, and whether that official received actual notice of the alleged abuse. Sometimes this is obvious. If, for instance, a student or their parents tells a school principal directly about abuse or harassment, Title IX’s requirements will likely be met. But what about notice to teachers or guidance counselors? Generally, an “appropriate school official” is any employee with the power to address the alleged discrimination and to institute corrective measures. Which employees possess this authority depends on the school. Once an appropriate school official learns about abuse allegations, he or she must show “deliberate indifference” to be liable under Title IX. Whether an official’s behavior constitutes “deliberate indifference” depends on the circumstances. Generally, though, anytime a school official fails to investigate or prevent further abuse, a court will find the school was deliberately indifferent. In one case in Maine, for example, a judge ruled that a school district’s outright dismissal of sexual harassment allegations by a teacher against another teacher and failure to interview any students as part of the investigation could be considered “deliberate indifference.” If you or your child was sexually abused or harassed at school, it is extremely important to consult with an experienced crime victim and sexual abuse attorney with experience bringing Title IX lawsuits. The sooner you consult with a lawyer, the better the chance your rights will be protected.

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