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Federal Judge Rules Claims Against Principal for “Turning a Blind Eye” to Sexual Abuse May Proceed to Trial

K-12 Education Publications

A judge in the Northern District of Illinois recently ruled that school officials may be held liable for turning a blind eye to other officials’ constitutional violations. In Sandra T.E. v. Sperlik, 639 F. Supp. 2d 912 (N.D. Ill. 2009), students who were sexually abused by their music teacher filed suit against the school principal and other school officials, alleging that the officials’ responses to their complaints of abuse violated their Fourth Amendment, substantive due process, and equal protection rights, and that the officials intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the students. 

Finding most of the students’ claims against the principal sufficient to survive summary judgment, the court held that a substantive due process claim will stand where a student puts forth enough evidence to demonstrate that a school official “turned a blind eye to constitutional violations,” creating a climate where innocent students are victimized. Specifically, the court found sufficient evidence that the principal turned a blind eye to the music teacher’s sexual abuse of the students, in possible violation of the students’ constitutional rights to bodily integrity. For example, the court found that after hearing the students’ complaints about the music teacher, the principal provided a watered-down version of the students’ allegations, lied to the other school officials about the extent of the teacher’s actions, and failed to impose any discipline against the teacher beyond warnings. Finding a jury could infer from the principal’s response that she “swept the incident under the rug” and “turned a blind eye” to the music teacher’s sexual abuse, allowing it to fester, the court held this evidence was sufficient to create a fact issue for the judge or jury to decide during a trial. 

For similar reasons, the court also found sufficient evidence to create a fact issue for trial that the principal violated the students’ equal protection rights by “turning a blind eye” to the sexual abuse. The court also found ample evidence to demonstrate that the principal knew that covering up the music teacher’s behavior would likely cause the students emotional distress. Her lies to the students’ parents about the music teacher’s behavior and withholding information from other school officials who could have stopped the teacher’s behavior could also be deemed extreme and outrageous. Accordingly, the court permitted the students’ intentional infliction of emotional distress claim to proceed against the principal. 

Importantly, this case illustrates those situations where school officials may be held liable for their responses to students’ allegations of abuse by other school officials. It further amplifies the importance of taking such complaints seriously and appropriately responding to such allegations.