(CN) - An elementary school principal must stand trial for allegedly telling parents that a band teacher who later admitted to molesting students had only been touching the girls to help them keep time in music class, the 7th Circuit ruled.
Karen Grindle, the principal at Pershing Elementary School when the abuse came to light, claimed she couldn't be sued for due process and equal protection violations because the alleged victims and their parents failed to show that a clearly established right had been violated.
But Judge Joel Flaum of the Chicago-based court said Grindle's "deliberate indifference" to the evidence of abuse makes her potentially liable for constitutional violations.
The abuse first came to light in 2001, after the school hosted a presentation for students on inappropriate touching. Three girls wrote a letter to the presenter confessing that their band teacher, Robert Sperlik, rubbed their legs and backs.
"Grindle told the parents about the girls' letter, but refused to let them see it, instead telling them that their daughter had attended a 'good touch, bad touch' seminar that had led her to overreact and write the letter," Flaum wrote.
"Grindle also told the parents that [the band teacher] had innocently touched their daughter on her shoulder and legs to help her keep time with the music."
The principal received two more complaints in 2002, including one from a parent whose daughter said she felt uncomfortable when Sperlik put his fingers over hers while demonstrating proper technique.
Grindle reported this incident to the district superintendent, but characterized the first complaint - the girls' letter - as a "pedagogical issue" over teaching methods, rather than possible sexual harassment.
In 2005, one of the girls who wrote the letter told her mother that Sperlik used to bind her with duct tape in class. Her mother called police, who launched an investigation. Other victims came forward, claiming Sperlik bound them with duct tape, presenting it as a "game," and rubbed their thighs or touched their breasts.
"Sperlik has since pleaded guilty to multiple counts of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated criminal sexual abuse, admitting that he abused his students for sexual gratification based on his interest in bondage pornography," the ruling states.
The alleged victims and their parents said Grindle knew about the abuse and was deliberately trying to cover it up by misleading parents, the superintendent and other administrators.
The district court rejected Grindle's bid for qualified immunity, and the federal appeals court agreed that Grindle is not shielded from liability.
"[A] jury could conclude that by attempting to convert claims about sexual abuse by Sperlik into complaints about teaching methods, Grindle treated the girls' complaints differently because of their sex," Judge Flaum wrote, allowing the equal protection claims to proceed.
Grindle also argued that the plaintiffs failed to prove that she had "reasonable notice" that her actions violated the students' "due process right to bodily integrity."
"[A] reasonable school principal would have concluded that she could be held liable for turning a blind eye to and affirmatively covering up evidence of child sexual abuse by one of her teachers," Flaum concluded.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.