(CN) – The parents of an Arkansas high-school student who was sexually abused by her basketball coach failed to prove that the school principal knew about the abuse and failed to act, the 8th Circuit ruled.
Parents John Doe and Martha Roe argued that Tanya Wilcher, the former principal of Delight High School, had “actual notice” that coach Chad Smith had sexually abused their minor daughter, Jane Doe.
Various parents complained to school officials about Smith, claiming he sent one of his players a text message that read, “Are you drunk yet?” and texted another student, “tell your mom that I love her.”
Around the same time, the district superintendent’s secretary reported that Jane Doe, then a ninth-grader, might have a crush on Smith and appeared to be skipping her home economics class to visit him in the gym.
Wilcher followed up with Jane’s home economics teacher, who said Jane had been absent only once or twice.
The superintendent’s secretary also relayed her suspicions that “something was going on” between Smith and Jane Doe to the girl’s parents, who asked the principal if there was any substance to the allegations of “inappropriate” behavior.
Wilcher said she had looked into it and confirmed that the claims were only rumors.
After one more text messaging controversy, and a slew of complaints from parents, school officials decided not to renew Smith’s teaching contract at the end of the year.
Before they notified Smith, Wilcher learned that Smith and Jane Doe were involved in a sexual relationship. Jane provided a statement to police admitting “frequent sexual contact with Smith in the school locker room,” according to the ruling.
Smith was arrested and ultimately pleaded guilty to first-degree sexual assault. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with six years suspended.
Jane’s parents sued the school district, Wilcher and other school officials for allegedly violating their daughter’s due process rights by failing to investigate the sexual abuse allegations.
A federal judge dismissed all but the claims against Wilcher, saying it wasn’t clear if the principal had “actual notice” of the sexual abuse based on earlier conversations.
The three-judge panel in St. Louis reversed, ruling that there were no earlier indications or allegations of sexual abuse.
“The plaintiffs presented no evidence demonstrating that Smith reciprocated Doe’s allegedly flirtatious behavior with physical contact,” Judge Steven Colloton wrote. “Wilcher’s reasonable investigation of the information that came to her attention uncovered no evidence to substantiate the suspicions.”
Colloton agreed with the lower court’s finding that Smith’s inappropriate text messages to female students “did not provide Wilcher with actual notice of sexual abuse.”
“Even the most suggestive text message … did not go so far as to suggest actual sexual conduct or abuse,” the court wrote.
Because Wilcher is entitled to qualified immunity, the 8th Circuit ruled, the parents’ Title IX claim against the Delight School District must also be dismissed.