Priscilla Owen. Courtesy photo

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed a $4.5 million judgment against a San Antonio school district, concluding it couldn’t be sued for failing to stop a principal from repeatedly molesting a student because the perpetrator himself was the only school employee who knew about the crimes.

In her decision, Fifth Circuit Judge Priscilla Owen reversed a jury’s award by concluding that Title IX does not entitle the plaintiff to recovery from a school district when the only person with knowledge of the sexual harassment is the perpetrator.

The student, A.S., was repeatedly molested in the school by Vice Principal Michael Alcoser.

“A district cannot be expected to take corrective actions while the offender conceals his wrongdoing,” Owen wrote in the June 15 decision that reverses and remands the case.

Owen noted that the abuse A.S. suffered is “heart-wrenching” and Alcoser’s conduct was “despicable.”

“But requiring a recipient of Title IX funds to respond in damages when its employee sexually abuses a student and the only employee or representative of the recipient who has actual knowledge of the abuse is the offender does not comport with Title IX’s express provisions or implied remedies,” Owen wrote.

According to the decision in A.S. v. South San Antonio Independent School District, the background is as follows. A.S. was an elementary student in the South San Antonio Independent School District where Alcoser worked. Alcoser would buy A.S.’s lunch, which they would share in Alcoser’s office behind closed doors where the vice principal repeatedly molested him. The abuse continued for five years until A.S.’s family discovered it when he was in the seventh grade.

A.S.’s parents reported Alcoser’s abuse to the San Antonio police. The school district cooperated with the police investigation and Alcoser ultimately pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault and was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

A.S. later sued the school district for civil damages under Title IX, which denies federal funding to schools that discriminate on the basis of sex and allows for plaintiffs to recover monetary damages when a district is held liable for a school employee’s sexual harassment of a student.

Uncontroverted testimony at trial established that Alcoser had corrective authority to address gender discrimination and sexual harassment and that Alcoser, the perpetrator, was the only district employee or representative who had knowledge of the abuse.

A jury later found that a school official had knowledge of the sexual harassment and reacted with deliberate indifference to A.S.’s abuse, and awarded $4.5 million in damages. The district appealed the award to the Fifth Circuit.