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  • WisBar News
    July 31, 2018

    Seventh Circuit: No Civil Liability for School District in Lawsuit by Student

    Joe Forward

    WI Supreme Court

    July 31, 2018 – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has ruled that the Madison Metropolitan School District is not liable for damages to a former student who alleged a security assistant sexually abused her when she was an eighth-grade student.

    The Jane Doe plaintiff sued under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, claiming the district was liable because officials had knowledge of an inappropriate relationship between the student and the security assistant but took no action.

    However, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin granted summary judgment in favor of the school district, concluding the Jane Doe plaintiff did not prove that any school official had actual knowledge of sexual abuse by the security assistant.

    In Jane Doe No. 55 v. Madison Metropolitan School District, No. 17-1521 (July 26, 2018), a three-judge panel for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision, concluding the district could not be liable under the facts of the case.

    Interactions with Students

    The opinion does not explain whether the security assistant was ever charged or convicted for any crime against the Doe plaintiff, but describes the “cautionary flags” of his contacts with Jane Doe and other students at Whitehorse Middle School.

    Jane Doe was a student at Whitehorse from 2011 to 2014. The security assistant, Willie Collins, supervised lunch and recess, oversaw detention, and monitored the school.

    The school principal, Deborah Ptak, was Collins’ supervisor, and according to the opinion, regularly saw Collins hugging male and female students. According to the panel, most hugs were “student-initiated” as Collins appeared popular with students.

    Ptak also observed Collins walk up behind Doe and other students, both boys and girls, and rub their shoulders. Doe, a seventh grader, frequently initiated hugs with Collins and hung on him. At one point, a school official observed Doe try to kiss Collins on the cheek, but he declined her attempt and appeared to say something to her privately.

    Other school officials observed similar contacts and reported them to Ptak. Ultimately, Ptak spoke with Collins, who said Doe had confided in him about problematic relationships with family members and other students and he was trying to support her.

    Ptak told Collins to establish clear and strong boundaries, not to have physical contact with her, and to avoid speaking with her outside of common areas. Later that month, officials learned that Doe was intentionally cutting herself and contacted her mother.

    Doe’s mother said that her daughter had run off after deleting information from her iPad, which was protected, the mother learned, using Collins’ name as the password.

    The school counselor told Doe’s mother to speak with Ptak if she believed there was an unhealthy relationship between Collins and Doe, but that conversation did not happen. Doe’s mother did not follow up with any school official about the relationship.

    After her conversation with the counselor, Doe’s mother emailed Collins and apologized for getting him involved. She did not request that he stop interacting with her daughter.

    Towards the end of that year, Ptak said Doe and Collins interacted much less frequently and she observed no physical contact between them. However, Doe did try to get out of class once by saying she wanted to speak with Collins about a “problem.”

    Doe started eighth grade the next school year, in 2013. Ptak did not learn of any interactions between Doe and Collins and Doe appeared much calmer that year.

    But before starting high school in 2014, Doe told her cousin, and later her mother, that Collins sexually abused her by kissing and fondling her and making sexual comments. Madison Police investigated and Collins was placed on an immediate leave of absence.

    No Liability for School District

    Doe’s lawsuit against the school district followed. But the three-judge panel concluded that Doe could not overcome the burden that would trigger liability for the district.

    The panel noted that a plaintiff in a Title IX damages suit “must prove actual knowledge of misconduct, not just actual knowledge of the risks of misconduct.”

    “[I]n this case, it is undisputed that Ptak was unaware of Doe’s allegations of sexual abuse until after Doe had graduated from middle school,” wrote District Judge John Lee of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District Illinois, sitting by designation.

    The panel said Doe relied on facts from the prior school year in trying to establish that Collins presented a known risk of committing sexual abuse, not that he actually did so.

    “[S]uch facts certainly could have raised some concern that stricter and more defined boundaries between Collins and Doe might have been advisable during Doe’s seventh-grade year (which Ptak did impose),” wrote Judge Lee.

    But, the panel concluded, “we agree with the district court that a reasonable jury could not find, based on these facts, that Ptak had actual knowledge of any sexual misconduct on the part of Collins that created a serious risk to Doe.”

    “Nor could a rational jury find that Ptak had actual knowledge of a risk so great that harm to Doe was almost certain to materialize if nothing were done to stop it.”

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