School District Not Liable For Teacher’s Sex Acts With Student

There were rumors floating around about Kelly Sweet, an eighth-grade teacher in the St. Francis School District south of Milwaukee. Some thought she had “a crush” on a student. Her colleagues complained that she “blurred the line” with students and treated them like friends, reports Courthouse News Service. However, even the teacher who was her most ardent critic did not suspect illegal activity.

The school district investigated the matter, interviewed Sweet, and found no proof of misconduct. But Sweet eventually pleaded guilty to criminal charges involving kissing, and possibly “petting,” one of her students after the victim’s mother found inappropriate text messages on his cell phone.

Despite the district’s suspicions, the possibly preventable sex abuse was not the district’s fault, the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled. Though the principal and superintendant knew of Sweet’s possibly inappropriately close relationship with her students, Judge Richard Posner explained: “to know that someone suspects something is not to know the something and does not mean the something is obvious.”

Ummmm… yes. And this is why we need lawyers for our cases. Judges sometimes don’t speak English.

What he meant to say is that districts can’t punish their employees on mere suspicions. Once they investigated the matter and found no evidence of wrongdoing, their hands were tied. Someone can’t be fired because her coworkers think she is too nice to students but not breaking any laws. In addition, once proof was available after the scandal broke, Sweet was fired. The district did everything reasonably possible under the circumstances.

A school district can only be held vicariously liable for the illegal acts of an employee when it has “actual notice of” and is “deliberately indifferent to” employee misconduct. And to paraphrase Judge Posner, knowing about a suspicion of misconduct is not the same as knowing of misconduct. While Kelly Sweet may be liable for sexual harassment and assault of the student under the federal Title IX statute, the district can’t be held liable for not terminating her on mere schoolhouse rumors.

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School District Not Liable For Teacher’s Sex Acts With Student