A Michigan appellate court ruled in favor of a school district in a sexual harassment case involving two students, but it also held that schools could be held accountable in such cases in the future.
The lawsuit, brought by a parent of a student, alleged that Alpena Public School District violated the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) by creating “a sexually-hostile educational environment,” according to the Michigan Court of Appeals’ opinion, dated Dec. 22.
Though the appellate court did not agree with the lower court’s reasoning, it found there wasn’t sufficient proof the school district failed to respond appropriately to the harassment complaints.
However, the appellate court ruled “the trial court erred when it held that the student-on-student sexual harassment claims are not actionable under the ELCRA.”
Instead, it held that schools do have some control over the behavior of students “such that they may be vicariously liable for hostile educational environment discrimination arising from student-on-student harassment.”
The case stems from events beginning in 2017 at Besser Elementary School. A fourth grade male student allegedly had inappropriate interactions with a female classmate on two separate occasions. After each incident, the boy was suspended. Additionally, the two students were separated into different classrooms.
Before her sixth grade year, legal counsel for the girl directed Thunder Bay Junior High School administrators to prevent the two students from having contact. Despite school officials’ agreement, the two allegedly ended up on the same bus on the first day of school, where another incident transpired. The girl reported this, and bus arrangements were changed. However, the students were allegedly still in school halls at the same time. The girl eventually transferred to a private school.
The appellate court’s decision provides direction for future Michigan lawsuits dealing with the issue of school liability in cases of harassment among students. The plaintiff may still appeal the appellate court’s decision to the Michigan Supreme Court.