Supreme Court Won’t Honor $4.5 Million Award in Abuse Case
Adrian Salazar was sexually abused in third through sixth grade by school administrator Michael Alcoser. Alcoser was the vice principal and later principal of the student’s elementary school in the South San Antonio Independent School District.
Alcoser routinely gave Salazar gifts and bought his lunch. Alcoser molested the student during their private lunch sessions as well as when the boy went to a summer camp. When the child transitioned to middle school, principal Alcoser convinced his parents to drive Salazar to the elementary school so he could “tutor” him.
It wasn’t until Salazar was in seventh grade that his family discovered the abuse. Alcoser was subsequently terminated from his position and cooperated with an investigation. He ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated sexual assault of a child and was found guilty of two counts of indecency with a child. He was sentenced to eighteen years in prison.
Salazar sued the school district where the abuse occurred using Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. This prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded schools. The student’s family alleged the district should be held liable citing the 1998 decision in Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District. The U.S. Supreme Court held that schools could be held liable for sexual harassment or abuse if “an official of the school district who at a minimum has authority to institute corrective measures” has “actual notice” of the misconduct and was “deliberately indifferent” to the notice.
The jury found that this fits in Salazar’s case and awarded him $4.5 million in damages. The school district tried to toss out the verdict, but this was denied by the trial judge who stated “under the circumstances of this case, it is not at all unreasonable to impose Title IX liability upon the school district for the sexual harassment endured by Salazar.”
In June of this year, however, three judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans tossed the verdict. After the unanimous overturning of the trial court’s decision, U.S. Circuit Judge Priscilla R. Owen stated the language in the case cited by Salazar did not support the circumstances of his particular situation, and therefore the $4.5 million award was not revived.
“It is unreasonable to construe [Title IX] to mean that an employee of a school district who committed sexual abuse in violation of the prohibitions of Title IX would be an ‘appropriate person or persons’ concerning that sexual abuse,” Owen wrote. “The abuse that Salazar suffered is heart-wrenching, and Alcoser’s conduct and breach of trust is despicable. But requiring a recipient of Title IX funds to respond in damages when its employee sexually abuses a student and the only employee or representative of the recipient who has actual knowledge of the abuse is the offender does not comport with Title IX’s express provisions or implied remedies.” She added, “When the ‘eyes and ears’ of the school district at a given campus for Title IX enforcement and compliance is also the person violating a student’s rights, congressional intent is thwarted by interpreting the law in the way the 5th Circuit did here.”