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“Deliberate Indifference” Claim For Ongoing Teacher-Student Sexual Abuse Defeated By School District’s Title IX Investigation & Reporting

John E. Hosa, Esq., jhosa@tuckerlaw.com, (412) 594-5659

Ricketts v. Titusville Area Sch. Dist., C.A. No. 21-129 Erie, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162029 (W.D. Pa. September 13, 2023). A federal court dismissed a claim of deliberate indifference by a school district for ongoing sexual abuse of a student by a teacher where the school district had undertaken a Title IX investigation and reported such allegations to multiple authorities.

Case Background & Timeline

Rochelle Cressman (“Cressman”) worked as a physical education teacher at Titusville Area School District’ (“TASD”). Plaintiff, Stephanie Ricketts’ son, L.G., began attending TASD as a seventh-grade student in April of 2018. In the summer of 2018, L.G. began performing miscellaneous maintenance work at Cressman’s home and rental properties several days per week. Cressman provided transportation to L.G. to and from her properties for this purpose. Eventually, Cressman and L.G. began spending significantly more time together throughout the summer, which included several “all-day trips.” All of this was done with the consent of Plaintiff.

In the fall of 2018, rumors began to spread throughout TASD that Cressman and L.G. had a sexual relationship. A Title IX investigation ensued in which it was determined, among other things, that Cressman had been routinely driving L.G. home from school. Following the investigation, a TASD principal contacted Children and Youth Services (“CYS”) to report her concerns about Cressman and L.G.’s relationship. Cressman was directed by TASD via a memorandum to immediately stop driving L.G. home from school, to cease electronic communications with L.G., and to not spend time alone with L.G. TASD also filed an Educator Misconduct Report against Cressman with the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

TASD’s superintendent contacted law enforcement several times to inquire about the status of the CYS report. CYS eventually began its own investigation on September 19, 2018. At the conclusion of its investigation, which included interviews with L.G.’s family and a forensic interview of L.G., CYS concluded that the allegations of sexual abuse by Cressman of L.G. were “unfounded.” L.G. had denied any kind of inappropriateness with their relationship. The Crawford County District Attorney, who had observed the interview with L.G., agreed with the decision of CYS. Plaintiff also had given express permission for Cressman to drive L.G. home from school. As a result, TASD informed Cressman via a memorandum on October 17, 2018, that it would not enforce its policy prohibiting teachers driving students home from school against her and L.G.

Criminal Conviction & Subsequent Federal Suit Against School District

On May 3, 2019, Cressman went missing and attempted suicide. While Cressman was missing, L.G. confessed to his mother that Cressman had been sexually abusing him since September of 2018. Cressman later was criminally convicted of three counts of Statutory Sexual Assault. A federal suit against TASD followed.

Federal Suit Against TASD – Discussion

In a claim against a school district for failing to protect a student from sexual abuse, a plaintiff must establish two elements:

1) the school district’s policy, practice, or custom played an affirmative role in bringing about the sexual abuse

2) the school district acted with deliberate indifference to that abuse. Doe v. Boyertown Area Sch. Dist., 10 F.Supp.3d 637, 650 (E.D. Pa. 2014). 

Regarding the first element, Plaintiff argued that TASD implemented a practice and custom of refusing to enforce existing child-protection policies against Cressman. Specifically, Plaintiff noted the memorandum in which TASD stated it would not enforce its policy prohibiting teachers driving students home from school against Cressman and L.G. Plaintiff also argued that TASD failed to ensure that its prior written directive that Cressman stop electronic communications with L.G. was being followed, thus furthering the practice and custom.

The Court responded, however, that Plaintiff had not demonstrated TASD knew about the sexual abuse at the time the alleged practice or custom was adopted. Although TASD’s superintendent had suggested she “believed” CYS “made a mistake” in finding the allegations to be “unfounded,” the Court stated that this merely indicates her belief and supposition from which the Court could not infer knowledge. The Court emphasized that both CYS and law enforcement had conducted extensive investigations and made no findings of sexual abuse. Because TASD had no knowledge of the abuse at the time its alleged policy was implemented, the policy could not have played an affirmative role in bringing about the abuse. Therefore, Plaintiff failed to satisfy the first element.

Plaintiff is Unable to Prove the School District Acted with Deliberate Indifference

The Court further explained that Plaintiff would likewise be unable to prove the second element of a deliberate indifference claim. In order to demonstrate deliberate indifference on the part of TASD, it must be shown that TASD knew about past violations and failed to take precautions against future abuse, which contributed to the victim’s injury. As was established, TASD had no knowledge of any abuse. Additionally, the Court found that TASD did take precautions by promptly conducting a Title IX investigation, filing a report with CYS, contacting law enforcement about the status of the report, issuing directives to Cressman, and filing a misconduct report. Therefore, Plaintiff failed to satisfy the second element of her claim.

Finally, the Court summarily rejected Plaintiff’s implicit state-created danger claim based on its finding that no rational fact-finder could conclude that TASD exhibited deliberate indifference to the sexual abuse of L.G.

PRACTICAL ADVICE

The ruling in Ricketts highlights the importance of promptly and thoroughly responding to information or allegations of an employee’s sexual abuse of a student and of exercising adequate precautionary measures to prevent further abuse.

In Ricketts, the school district immediately conducted a Title IX investigation upon learning of the rumored sexual relationship between a teacher and a student. Furthermore, after its investigation, the school district exercised a number of precautions, including:

1) filing a report with CYS

2) issuing a written memorandum to the teacher directing her to cease driving the student, communicating with the student, and spending time alone with the student

(3) contacting law enforcement about the status of the CYS report

(4) filing an Educator Misconduct Report with the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Although it subsequently was determined that the teacher had actually sexually abused the student in this instance, the responsive measures undertaken by the school district ultimately precluded a finding of liability against the school district.

For more information, contact John Hosa at (412) 594-5659 or at jhosa@tuckerlaw.com.

December 20, 2023

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