Verdict against schools reversed

July 7, 2010 —

Last Thursday, a federal judge in Port Huron overturned an $800,000 jury verdict, and dismissed a student’s sexual harrassment lawsuit against Hudson Area Schools. The verdict had been appealed after a trial mid-March.

The jury verdict “was against the great weight of the evidence,” United States District Judge Lawrence P. Zatkoff stated in an opinion issued Thursday.

“The court finds that the uncontroverted evidence is that defendant’s teachers and administrators responded to each and every incident of harassment of which they had notice,” Zatkoff stated in his ruling. “There was no evidence whatsoever presented that Defendant “was aware that adverse consequences from its action or inaction were certain or substantially certain to cause harm … and that the defendant decided to act or not act in spite of that knowledge . . . the defendant “responded to known peer harassment in a manner that was not clearly unreasonable.”

The former student claimed school staff failed to take appropriate action to his complaints of being called “gay” and “faggot” during three years of harassment that ended with a locker room sexual assault in 2005. He claimed he was unable to return to Hudson High School after the assault at the end of his freshman year.

In a 31-page ordering the verdict to be set aside, Zatkoff reviewed each incident reported to the school administration, and detailed the steps taken by the school over a four year period to deal with the ongoing problem. In several cases the school administration went well beyond the minimum necessary to address the issue, and the students involved were disciplined. In the specific case of the locker room sexual harrassment, the student making the assault was expelled from school, and was arrested and sent to juvenile court.

The opinion noted thatt the end of his seventh-grade year, an evaluation team concluded the student had an emotional impairment. To help alleviate these issues, a program was designed for his eighth-grade year that included spending time each day in a middle school resource room for emotionally impaired students. The student testified he had no problems being harassed during the eighth grade.

According to the opinion, the student’s parents disagreed with a program recommended for his freshman year in high school that included switching from the middle school resource room to one at the high school. The parents ended up signing an agreement for very limited access to the middle school resource room, the opinion stated, and harassment complaints began again that year.

Zatkoff said he believes that is a key issue, warranting a reversal of the jury award and dismissal of the case.

Zatkoff had ruled to dismiss the case in 2007 for lack of evidence against the school district. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, overturned that decision last year and sent the case back for trial. The main issue in the appeals court judges’ ruling was a belief there was evidence “that resource room services were not available to plaintiff during his ninth-grade year,” Zatkoff stated. Undisputed evidence at trial was that a ninth-grade resource room was available and offered, he stated, but the boy’s parents wanted instead to continue the middle school service.

Not sexual harrassment

Zatkoff also ruled the lawsuit did not fit the requirements of a Title IX sexual discrimination claim.

Zatkoff noted that although this case was brought as a Title IX case, which requires discrimination or harassment on the basis of sex, the student consistently argued and presented a case on bullying and that he was harassed because he did not conform to the stereotypical male in the Hudson Area Schools. “This theme was promoted at every opportunity. . . that:Hudson Area Schools had ‘a highly charged environment where the common perception of a male gender was the aggressive male football player and wrestler” and that the student “a person of slight build,” was the subject of “attacks on [his] gender and the perception he is not a man.”

He concluded that the jury verdict was against the great weight of the evidence, which did not support a finding that: the student was subjected to harassment based on sex; that even if the harassment was based on sex, it was severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive; or the school was deliberately indifferent to the harassment.

The studen’t attorney called Zatkoff’s ruling “irrelevant” because a settlement agreement was reportedly reached earlier this week. The amount and terms of the agreement are not being disclosed at this time, Heiss said.

School Superintendent Michael Osborne, who was high school principal during the closing stages of the student’s time in school, said he is pleased with the judge’s ruling, especially in his finding that Hudson school staff tried to do the right things for the student once he was found to have an emotional impairment. He said he hopes that this will be the end of the incident.

After the locker room incident but prior to the commencement of the student’s tenth grade year, his individual instructional plan was modified. He took his eleventh grade and twelfth grade classes through college placement courses at the school. Thestudent graduated from Hudson High School a year early, and he has taken some college courses, primarily online.