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Jury Award Upheld Against District in Locker Room Harassment

A federal appeals court has upheld a $200,000 damages award against a Tennessee school district in a case involving incidents of student-on-student sexual harassment in a middle school gym locker room.

A jury found that administrators in the Wayne County district were deliberately indifferent to evidence that 8th grade male basketball players were harassing their 7th grade counterparts in the locker room, including "lights out" incidents of gyrating on the younger players, and requiring a blindfolded student to perform sit-ups in which his face came into contact with the bare buttocks of an 8th grader. In the most serious incident, 8th grade players restrained a 7th grader, pulled down his pants, and anally inserted a felt marker.

The perpetrators in the marker incident were suspended from school for 11 days and suspended from the basketball team for a month in the fall of 2008. The school's principal viewed the "lights out" and sit-ups incidents a "bad pranks," and only months later did he issue a verbal reprimand to the perpetrators, court papers say.

Two 7th graders on the basketball team were the victims of the sit-up and marker incidents. Their parents sued the Wayne County district and various officials raising numerous claims, but the only claim to go before the jury was one against the school district for deliberate indifference to peer sexual harassment under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars sex discrimination in federally funded schools.

The jury found the district liable and awarded $100,000 in damages to each of the victims, identified in court papers as John Doe and James Doe. A federal district court rejected the school district's motion to set aside the verdict.

In its Aug. 23 decision in Mathis v. Wayne County Board of Education, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, unanimously upheld the jury verdict. The court rejected the district's arguments that its officials had not been deliberately indifferent to the locker room incidents because they took action after they received actual notice of the behavior.

"[T]here was ample evidence before the jury from which reasonable jurors could have concluded that [the school district's] response constituted deliberate indifference," the 6th Circuit court said. "Additionally, the jury could have reasonably viewed the evidence of the marker incident not as just horseplay gone awry, but rather as a serious incident of sexual assault, which requires a punishment more severe than an 11-day suspension from [school] and a month-long suspension from the basketball team."

As for the "lights out" and situp incidents, the jury may have reasonably concluded that the district's response was "too little, too late," the court said.

The parents of both boys removed them from the middle school amid the controversy.

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