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District Not Liable in Student Sex Abuse, Appeals Court Says

A federal appeals court has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit seeking to hold an Ohio school district liable for a teacher's sexual abuse of a student.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled unanimously that district officials had not been deliberately indifferent to the abuse despite having reprimanded the teacher for several instances of non-sexual physical contact with students.

The court ruled in a suit brought against the Columbus school district and some of its officials on behalf of a victim identified as John Doe. The student reported that Winterset Elementary School teacher Gary Stroup had put his hand down the student's pants and touched the student's genitals.

An investigation turned up other cases of misconduct, and Stroup entered an Alford plea, in which he accepted a plea agreement while professing his innocence, in two cases and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Doe and his parents alleged in their civil lawsuit that Columbus school officials had warning signs of Stroup's misconduct. At Winterset and another elementary school, there were instances in which Stroup allegedly kicked a female student in her posterior, pinched students' chests and posteriors, and touched a student's thigh while steadying himself. The incidents were investigated and the teacher was warned not to touch, pinch, or hug students.

The 6th Circuit court, analyzing the Doe family's Title IX and other claims, held that "the nature and severity of Stroup's misconduct was not ... apparent to school officials" from the non-sexual touching incidents.

"Prior to Doe's allegations, the school was made aware of several instances of physical contact that were ostensibly non-sexual but could have served as potential indicia for sexual malfeasance," the 6th Circuit said in McCoy v. Board of Education, Columbus City Schools. "Confronting these facts, the school district conducted an informal investigation in each instance, responding with either a directive to Stroup not to engage in physical contact or no action if the investigation was inconclusive. In hindsight, the school district could certainly have done more. But this is not the standard by which we impose liability."

"Given the close call as to the nature of the allegations previously made against Stroup, it was not clearly unreasonable for the school district to have issued letters directing Stroup not to engage in such
physical contact," the court added. "Had there been a more discernible and explicit form of sexual harassment, in the form of verbal or physical sexual contact, the district's decision to repeat its measures may have constituted deliberate indifference."

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