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U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Revive $4.5 Million Award in School Abuse Case

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to revive a $4.5 million jury award under Title IX for a Texas student who was sexually abused over several years by a school administrator.

The justices declined without comment to take up the appeal of Adrian Salazar, whose 2015 jury award was overturned by a federal appeals court earlier this year.

Court papers say Salazar was sexually abused in 3rd through 6th grades by Michael Alcoser, who was the vice principal and later principal of the elementary school the student attended in the South San Antonio Independent School District.

Alcoser gave Salazar gifts and bought his lunch, which the two shared behind closed doors at Carrillo Elementary school, court papers say. Alcoser molested the student during those sessions, as well as at a summer computer camp. When Salazar entered middle school for 6th grade, Alcoser persuaded the boy's parents to drive him to the elementary school so Alcoser, who was by then principal, could "tutor" the boy.

The abuse was discovered by Salazar's family when the boy reached 7th grade. The school district fired Alcoser and cooperated with a police investigation. In 2011, Alcoser pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated sexual assault of a child and was found guilty by a jury of two counts of indecency with a child for his abuse of Salazar, and he was sentenced to 18 years in prison, court papers say.

Salazar sued the school district under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded schools.

Salazar's suit contended that the district should be held liable under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1998 decision in Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, which held that schools could be liable for sex harassment or abuse under Title IX if "an official of the school district who at a minimum has authority to institute corrective measures" has "actual notice" of the misconduct and was "deliberately indifferent" to it.

The jury in Salazar's case found that Alcoser was such an official, and it awarded Salazar $4.5 million in damages.

The trial judge rejected the school district's request to toss out the verdict, saying that "under the circumstances of this case, it is not at all unreasonable to impose Title IX liability upon the school district for the sexual harassment endured by Salazar."

In June, however, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, unanimously threw out the jury verdict. 

U.S. Circuit Judge Priscilla R. Owen wrote for the panel that language in the Supreme Court's Gebser decision did not support the notion of the wrongdoer being the official who is in a position to take corrective action in an abuse case.

"It is unreasonable to construe [Title IX] to mean that an employee of a school district who committed sexual abuse in violation of the prohibitions of Title IX would be an 'appropriate person or persons' concerning that sexual abuse," Owen wrote.

"The abuse that Salazar suffered is heart-wrenching, and Alcoser's conduct and breach of trust is despicable," Owen added. "But requiring a recipient of Title IX funds to respond in damages when its employee sexually abuses a student and the only employee or representative of the recipient who has actual knowledge of the abuse is the offender does not comport with Title IX's express provisions or implied remedies."

In their appeal to the Supreme Court in Salazar v. South San Antonio Independent School District (Case No. 17-386), lawyers for Salazar argued that the 5th Circuit's interpretation "means that there is effectively no remedy for the abuse of students when the abuse is carried out by the highest school officials on a campus."

"When the 'eyes and ears' of the school district at a given campus for Title IX enforcement and compliance is also the person violating a student's rights, congressional intent is thwarted by interpreting the law in the way the 5th Circuit did here."

The school district did not file a response to the appeal, and the Supreme Court did not request one.

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