Court Finds for School District in Title IX Case

Sep 15, 2017

A federal judge from the Northern District of Oklahoma has granted summary judgment to a school district, which was sued, pursuant to Title IX and other gender equity laws, after a basketball coach had an inappropriate relationship with a female student-athlete on his team.
In so ruling, the court found that the Independent School District No. 1 of Delaware County, Oklahoma and its personnel did not have actual knowledge of the abuse, nor did they exhibit deliberate indifference.
By way of background, the school district hired Cory Henton as a teacher and girls’ basketball coach in the summer of 2013. A school district representative was told by Henton’s prior employer that Henton was not eligible for rehire. However, the school district representative was also told that Henton’s ineligibility for rehire was not the result of a conflict with children.
Over the next 18 months, Henton’s career was marked by mild accusations of inappropriate conduct with student-athletes, mostly coming from parents.
Whether the exact accusations were true or not, Henton’s behavior took a dramatic turn with the arrival of C.N.C. during the 2014-15 school year. C.N.C. was a starter on the freshman team and played some on the high school team.
During Christmas break of the 2014-15 school year, Henton sent C.N.C. a friend request through a game called Trivia Crack. Trivia Crack allowed players to message each other similar to text messaging. Shortly after Henton and C.N.C. began communicating through Trivia Crack, Henton began to compliment C.N.C., telling her that she was pretty and had pretty eyes.
C.N.C.’s parents had given C.N.C. permission to download the Trivia Crack game on her phone, but they had no idea Henton was using that game to communicate with C.N.C. C.N.C. did not tell her parents or anyone else that she was communicating with Henton.
In February of 2015, the contact escalated when Henton suggested to C.N.C. that they communicate through a texting application called Cyber Dust, which would automatically erase their messages. C.N.C. did not ask her parents’ permission before downloading Cyber Dust to her phone. C.N.C. did not tell anyone that she was using Cyber Dust to communicate with Henton because she knew it was inappropriate and she wanted to keep it secret, according to the court.
Henton’s conversations with C.N.C. became more personal after they began using Cyber Dust. Henton told C.N.C. that he wanted to kiss her, and they kissed for the first time in March of 2015 at the gym following basketball practice after everyone else had left. After that, they began to hug, kiss, and hold hands when they were alone.
Later that month, assistant basketball coach Lindis Crawford received a text message from a friend, which suggested that Henton and C.N.C. were alone together in a locker room at the gym with the door locked. Henton explained away the incident, and most assumed it was a rumor. Then more students came forward about that incident and others, leading school officials to investigate the incidents. Immediately after confirming the rumors that the two were involved in an affair, the district’s Board of Education met on March 26, 2015, and terminated all of Henton’s coaching assignments.
The court noted that it did not take long for C.N.C. to successfully resume her studies and that she “remains an excellent student.”
Nevertheless, C.N.C. and her parents sued.
The court focused on Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, 524 U.S. 274, 118 S. Ct. 1989, 141 L. Ed. 2d 277 (1998), a case in which the Supreme Court explained that Title IX liability may be imposed on a school district for an individual’s sexual harassment of a student only if “an official who at a minimum has authority to address the alleged discrimination and to institute corrective measures on the recipient’s behalf has actual knowledge of discrimination in the [school district’s] programs and fails to adequately respond.” Id. at 290. Further, the refusal to adequately respond “must amount to deliberate indifference to discrimination.” Id. Thus, a school district is subject to liability “(1) only if the [school] remains deliberately indifferent to acts of harassment of which it has actual knowledge, (2) the harassment was reported to an appropriate person … with the authority to take corrective action to end the discrimination, and (3) the harassment was ‘so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it … deprived the victim of access to the educational benefits or opportunities provided by the school.'” Escue v. Northern Oklahoma College, 450 F.3d 1146, 1152 (10th Cir. 2006)
On the question of actual knowledge, the court found that the plaintiffs have failed to present evidence sufficient to demonstrate that the school district had actual knowledge of the inappropriate conduct by Henton with C.N.C. “The evidence in the record establishes that the School District had no knowledge of any relationship between Henton and C.N.C. until Sunday, March 22, 2015, when assistant basketball coach Crawford received a text message suggesting that Henton and C.N.C. had been in a room together with the door locked the previous day,” wrote the court.
Turning to whether the plaintiffs had demonstrated deliberate Indifference, the court again sided with the defendants.
“Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the court finds that the Plaintiffs have failed to present sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the school district’s failure to further inquire as to why Henton’s former employer would not provide a reference and that he was not eligible for rehire does not amount to a showing of deliberate indifference. Further, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the court finds that the plaintiffs have failed to present sufficient evidence to demonstrate (that school officials) acted with deliberate indifference to the risk of harm Henton posed to female students.”
Mandy and, individually and as parents and next friends of CNC, a minor v. Independent School District No. 1 of Delaware County, Oklahoma; N.D. Ok.; Case No. 16-CV-525-JHP-FHM, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 98818; 6/27/17
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiffs) George Michael Miles, James Edward Frasier, Steven R Hickman, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Frasier Frasier & Hickman, TULSA, OK. (for defendant) Jerry Alan Richardson, John Eric Priddy, Karen Lea Long, Staci Lynette Roberds, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Rosenstein Fist & Ringold, TULSA, OK.


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