A recent decision from an Indiana federal district court applied Title IX’s standard for institutional liability for peer harassment to a cause involving students’ harassment of a fellow student who is HIV positive. Parents of P.R., a middle school student, sued the school claiming that its failure to address the harassment violated the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. Consistent with other courts, the court borrowed the “deliberate indifference” requirement from case law interpreting Title IX, reasoning that the
Title IX’s standards for imposing institutional liability for peer harassment should apply to ADA/Rehabilitation Act suits as well, owing to the similarities between the statutes. Where Title IX operates to ensure that no person is excluded from or discriminated against because of sex by federally-funded schools, the ADA and Rehabilitation Act ensure that person is excluded from or discriminated against because of disability in public programs.
After borrowing Title IX’s peer harassment standard, the court proceeded to apply the standard to the allegations in the case. Ultimately, it concluded that the school could not be liable because it responded appropriately to each of the three alleged instances of harassment when they occurred. School officials met with offending individuals, and in one case, a student’s parents. When the offender was a school employee (a coach who asked, seemingly innocently but with acknowledged insensitivity, whether P.R. had AIDS), the offender was admonished and apologized. None of the offenders re-offended, suggesting that the school’s response was appropriate.
While ultimately this school district was held not to be liable for peer harassment of a student with HIV, the decision should help put schools on notice that they must be as diligent protecting student from harassment based on disability as they are required to be about harassment based on sex.
Decision is: P.R. ex rel. Rawl v. Metropolitan Sch. Dist. of Washington Township, 2010 WL 4457417 (S.D. Ind. Nov. 1., 2010).