District in Trouble over Failed Response to Coach’s Past Transgressions

Sep 11, 2009

A federal judge has denied a school district’s motion for summary judgment in a case in which a family sued the district and a principal, alleging violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 among other things.
In so ruling, the court found that a jury could find that the defendants had “actual knowledge of discrimination,” exhibited “deliberate indifference,” and that the “conduct was humiliating.”
The actions leading to the litigation began at the start of plaintiff Nicole Brodeur’s sophomore year at Stevens High School in Claremont, New Hampshire. Brodeur was 15, while biology teacher Gene Grumman, who was initially a defendant, was 55. Within the first two months of the school year, Grumman made several remarks about the plaintiff’s buttocks.
The court described one as follows: “Grumman was explaining the concept of the genetic code through an analogy in which Nicole was in love with a boy in the class, but had been locked in her room by her parents as punishment for seeing him. Grumman asked the class to suggest ways that Nicole could still communicate with the boy, leading one student to suggest that she climb out the window. Grumman said in response, according to Nicole’s contemporaneous account, ‘with that huge rubus of hers and those hips there’s no way she would fit. And then . . . she would be so grounded that her parents wouldn’t feed her dinner, but maybe that would help.”
Other comments were made that were similarly humiliating. The student told her parent in mid-October, and they, in turn, told her to tell her guidance counselor, Jacquelyn Hall. During the meeting, Hall directed the plaintiff to write the comments down, which she did, and then sign the statements.
Hall met with the principal, defendant Leo Paul Couture. After that conversation, Couture met with Grumman and told him that his comments “were inappropriate and the students did not find them to be humorous.” Couture did not, however, consider the comments to be sexual harassment. He did not discipline the teacher, who ultimately retired.
The student and her parents ultimately sued. The defendants subsequently moved for summary judgment.
In reviewing the motion, the court revisited prior complaints against Grumman, when he was the head coach of the Stevens girls’ varsity soccer team. The first complaint “took the form of a pseudonymous letter that Guillette’s predecessor as superintendent received early in the winter of 1999, alleging, among other things, that Grumman ‘made sexual comments to the girls on the field,’ ‘pulled the shorts on one girl, because she had what they call a wedgie,’ and ‘embarrasses the girls in his science class with comments’ suggesting their promiscuity.”
In response, Couture interviewed several members of the previous fall’s team, “who recounted a number of instances of inappropriate behavior by Grumman. These included (1) taking a girl’s bra from her gym bag and commenting on it, (2) telling the girls to think about sex to make themselves smile for the team photo, and (3) making vaguely suggestive comments about their breasts. The girls interviewed, however, said that nobody had actually seen Grumman touch the girl’s shorts as the letter alleged–that the girl had felt someone do that to her and, when she starting accusing her teammates, some suggested that it had been Grumman. When Couture interviewed Grumman, he denied ‘any incidents which he would view in retrospect as sexual harassment,’ but acknowledged the chance for ‘misinterpreted joking and kidding.’
“Finding ‘evidence to suggest that the girls interviewed have indeed been embarrassed by what has generally been described as Mr. Grumman’s kidding,’ Couture recommended that Grumman meet with both the JV and varsity teams in my presence . . . with the express purpose of apologizing to any/all who may have been offended. Furthermore, . . . Mr. Grumman must be give an opportunity to demonstrate his agreement that these types of comments must stop. Failure on Mr. Grumman’s part to stop must logically result in further disciplinary action. Grumman apologized as directed, and there was no further action.
Three years later, the coach made up a story about a sexual assault in an alleged attempt to get the team fired up for a game. While these actions led to the end of Grumman’s 20-year tenure as the girls’ varsity soccer coach at Stevens.
The teacher’s history and the defendant’s poor response to it led the court to dismiss the defendant’s motion for the aforementioned reasons.
Nicole Brodeur, et al. v. Claremont School District et al.; D.N.H,.; Civil No. 07-cv-206-JL 2009 DNH 82; 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50280; 6/12/09
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiffs) Peter E. Hutchins, LEAD ATTORNEY, Donna-Marie Cote, Wiggin & Nourie PA, Manchester, NH. (for defendants) Diane M. Gorrow, Soule Leslie Kidder Zelin Sayward & Loughman, Salem, NH. and Peter E. Hutchins, Wiggin & Nourie PA, Manchester, NH.


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