(CN) - A Texas school district must face claims that it failed to protect a disabled teenager after she was allegedly sexually abused by classmates, the 5th Circuit ruled.
Andricka Stewart alleged that male students sexually abused her in the restrooms of the A.J. Moore Academy, a high school in the Waco Independent School District, between November 2005 and October 2007.
Stewart, who suffers from mental retardation, speech impairment and hearing impairment, said Waco then failed to adequately modify her Individualized Education Program (IEP) to her torment.
She sued the school district in 2010 for civil rights violations, but a federal judge dismissed her complaint.
On appeal, a divided three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit revived a single claim for gross misjudgment under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
The 25-page opinion notes that this claim alleges merely that the school district refused to make reasonable accommodations for her disabilities.
"We begin by clarifying that bad faith or gross misjudgment are just alternative ways to plead the refusal to provide reasonable accommodations, an ambiguity potentially left open by our precedent in this area," Judge Catharina Haynes wrote for the New Orleans-based panel.
"In this view, it is immaterial whether the district explicitly refused to make reasonable accommodations; professionally unjustifiable conduct suffices," she added.
Though the school district may have modified Stewart's IEP after the first instance of alleged abuse, the majority found that failing to make additional modifications would support a claim for gross misjudgment.
"We caution that this opinion should not be read to make school districts insurers of the safety of special-needs students," Haynes wrote. "We emphasize that courts generally should give deference to the judgments of educational professionals in the operation of their schools. This opinion neither alters that default rule nor lowers the high standards plaintiffs must satisfy to impose liability against school districts. Isolated mistakes made by harried teachers and random bad acts committed by students and other third-parties generally will not support gross-misjudgment claims. At this stage in the case, we cannot say definitively that this case involves only the latter."
In a nine-page dissent, Judge Patrick Higginbotham noted that Stewart never exhausted the administrative remedies available under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).
"Today, the majority allows parents unhappy with an IEP to bypass the comprehensive remedial scheme of the IDEA and sue under §504 for money damages," Higginbotham wrote. "It then misapplies §504 to impose on schools a tort-like duty not to mismanage a disabled student's IEP. This unfortunate consequence defies precedent. I would hold that Ms. Stewart's failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the IDEA bars her from seeking money damages under §504. Alternatively, I would hold that bad faith, gross misjudgment, and deliberate indifference all rest upon substantially identical levels of culpability - levels that approximate the discriminatory animus §504 was intended to capture. On either wing, the district court's dismissal ought [to] be affirmed."
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