Every day, parents entrust teachers, coaches, and school counselors with the safety and well-being of their children. What happens when school employees betray that trust by bullying, abusing, or harassing students? When can parents sue the schools—and win?
What Can Parents Do When Teachers Are Bullies?
We’ve all seen the news items or heard stories. A teacher humiliates an autistic kid in front of the other students, in the guise of discipline. A coach targets a boy for being a “sissy.” A vice principal makes repeated sexual comments about a girl’s body. A school counselor initiates a sexual relationship with a teenager.
If a school employee has mistreated your child, the first thing you want to do is make sure the problem stops. After that, you may ask: Whom can I sue?
You might be able to sue (on behalf of your child) the person responsible for the abuse. But let’s face it: Teachers and school counselors don’t earn very much. Even if you win in court, it could be impossible to collect enough money to compensate for what your child has suffered.
If you want to collect significant damages—and send a message to the school itself—you may have to try suing the school district or school board. But can you succeed? It depends—on the circumstances, on the evidence, and on which laws apply.
Suing Schools Under Title IX for Sexual Harassment
If a teacher or other school employee has sexually harassed or abused your child, you might be able to sue the school district based on a violation of a federal law known as Title IX. That law says any educational program that receives federal funds—all public schools and most private schools—may not discriminate “on the basis of sex.” Sexual harassment is a form of sex-based discrimination. It includes comments or behavior of a sexual nature, unwanted sexual advances, or sexual assault or coercion. The U.S. Department of Education has also made it clear that Title IX prohibits harassment based on gender, including any unwelcome conduct based on a student’s actual or perceived sex, gender identity, or gender expression.
The U.S. Supreme Court has set a high bar for successful Title IX lawsuits. In order to win damages for a teacher’s sexual harassment, a student must show that a school official:
- knew about the school employee’s sexual harassment
- had the power to take corrective action, and
- did so little about the misconduct that the response amounted to “deliberate indifference.”
(Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, 524 U.S. 274 (1998).)
Other Civil Rights Lawsuits
When teachers bully students because of their sex, disability, race, or national origin, the harassment is a form of illegal discrimination in public schools. In that case, the parents might be able to sue the school under the federal Civil Rights Act of 1871 (42 U.S.C. § 1983) for violating their constitutional right to equal protection. Here again, courts have set strict requirements. To be successful, these lawsuits must show that:
- there was a widespread, persistent pattern of unconstitutional conduct on the part of school employees
- school officials knew about that misconduct and either were deliberately indifferent to it or tacitly authorized it, and
- the school’s failure to respond adequately to the misconduct caused the injury to the students.
If a teacher's harassment is based on the student's disability, parents may also sue schools for violating Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibit public schools from discriminating against students because of their disabilities. Courts have generally applied the same legal standards for these lawsuits as for suits under Title IX or § 1983.
Some states have civil rights protections in their constitutions or other laws that are stronger than federal law. Depending on where you live, you might be able to sue a school for violating these laws.
Suing Schools for Negligent Hiring or Supervision
Students who’ve been harmed as a result of harassment or abuse (or their parents) might be able to file a personal injury lawsuit against the school based on a claim that school officials were negligent in their duty to protect students from harm. Some courts have held that schools are liable under state law for hiring or keeping an employee who later sexually abused a student if the authorities knew that person had a past history of abuse or was prone to misconduct. A school might also be liable if a student proves that a teacher’s abuse was the result of negligent supervision.
There can be a big hurdle to overcome for these suits, however. Public schools (and some private ones) are generally immune from lawsuits except under certain circumstances. (See our article on schools’ immunity for more details.) Usually, this immunity means that you have to go through a claims process with the school district before filing a lawsuit.
Talking to a Lawyer
If your child has been the victim of harassment or abuse by a teacher or other school employee, consider consulting a lawyer. A lawyer with experience in a field like personal injury, education law, or civil rights should be able to give you practical advice about stopping the behavior. In addition, a knowledgeable lawyer will be able to explain which laws—state and federal—apply to your situation. An attorney can also tell you about the legal reasons (or “grounds”) for a possible lawsuit, including any not discussed in this article, plus the people and institutions you can sue. And a lawyer can advise you about potentially important steps like writing to the school and filing a claim with the school district or an agency like the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.