Public School Officials Can Be Liable for Not Responding to Harassment Claims

October 15, 2008

A California school district could be liable for damages for an inadequate response to peer sexual orientation harassment suffered by students on campus, the California Court of Appeal has ruled.

According to Megan Donovan et al. v. Poway Unified School District et al., plaintiffs Joseph Ramelli and Megan Donovan each endured “severe, pervasive and offensive” peer sexual orientation harassment while attending PHS. The harassment peaked during their junior year, with death threats; being spit on, physical violence, vandalism to personal property, and being subject to anti-gay epithets. Both students completed their senior year through an independent study program offered by the district.

Before filing a lawsuit, the plaintiffs and their parents met with the school principal and provided a log chronicling the harassment. The plaintiffs also complained to the district superintendent and assistant vice principal, teachers and other administrators at PHS.

The district said it responded adequately but the plaintiffs did not provide enough information for it to determine which students were responsible for the harassment, and that Ramelli and Donovan rejected suggestions on how to respond to the harassment.

Thus, the plaintiffs sued, alleging both state and federal causes of action. A jury awarded the plaintiffs monetary damages, and said the principal and assistant principal violated the students’ rights under the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The jury said the superintendent was not liable.

On appeal, the district argued that the trial court erroneously instructed the jury by applying negligence principles derived from the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, instead of the more stringent elements of liability derived from title IX of the Education Amendments, court documents indicate.

However, the Court of Appeal said that error was harmless. “As the district notes, the elements of liability in connection with plaintiff’s equal protection claims against [the principal] are the same elements that apply in Title IX action for monetary damages, which we hold also govern a private suit for damages,” the court wrote. “As the PHS principal, [Scott] Fisher was the ‘appropriate person’ to act on behalf of the district to ‘address the alleged discrimination and to institute corrective measures’ to end the discrimination. Thus, the jury’s findings in connection with Fisher also support holding the district liable … for its own wrongdoing based on its legally insufficient response to the harassment, and not … based on principles of respondeat superior and/or constructive notice.”

The appeals court affirmed the judgment against the defendants.

For information, visit

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.