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When Can Schools Be Held Accountable for a Teacher's Sex Abuse?

Schools are supposed to unquestionably safe spaces. So, when we hear about sexual abuse that takes place at a school, the news is particularly troubling. In those situations, it is natural to want the school to be held accountable for its failure to protect the victim from harm.

However, a recent ruling from a federal court in Chicago limited the instances in which a school can be held liable when a teacher abuses a student. It ruled that schools cannot be held responsible when they are suspicious of abuse, but have no actual knowledge that it is happening.

The victim in the case was a 14-year-old eighth-grade boy. The abuse started when the boy began receiving text messages from a 26-year-old teacher. The teacher told the student that she wanted him to be her boyfriend. Eventually, she invited him over to her apartment. There, according to the court, the pair engaged in "kissing and petting." They continued to text but did not further their physical relationship after that meeting.

The school became suspicious of the abuse after the teacher's colleagues reported that she was spending a lot of time texting during the school day. At least one teacher reported suspicions that there was an inappropriate relationship between the teacher and the student. The school conducted an investigation, but found no evidence to confirm the allegations. As a result, it did not take action against the teacher.

The abuse was eventually discovered after the boy's mother saw inappropriate text messages on his phone.

The boy's family went after the school for violations of both state and federal law. Ultimately, the federal appeals court noted that there was little the school could have done to stop the abuse, since the teacher denied the relationship and the school couldn't find evidence to prove it. It said that mere suspicion is not enough to hold a school accountable. Rather, the school must have failed to stop the abuse in the face of some actual proof.

Of course, this does not mean that the victims of sexual abuse are without options. There are still many other strategies victims can use to hold their abusers accountable.

Source: Business Insurance, "Public school district not liable for teacher's sexual abuse of student: Court," Judy Greenwald, Sept. 11, 2012.

To learn more about how childhood sexual abuse victims can seek justice for the wrongs that were done to them, please visit our child sexual abuse page.

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