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T.F. v. Spaulding Youth Center

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

September 29, 2016

T.F. and W.M. by p/n/f Ashley M. and Kevin M.
Spaulding Youth Center, Colleen Sliva, Auburn School District, School Administrative Unit 15, and Anne McSweeney Opinion No. 2016 DNH 175


          Joseph N. Laplante, United States District Judge

         This case implicates a school's and school district's duties to protect children from and notify parents of intra-student sexual harassment. Ashley M. and Kevin M. brought this action on their own behalf, as well as on behalf of their minor children, T.F. and W.M., after learning that T.F. was sexually harassed by another student while attending Spaulding Youth Center as part of an agreement with the Auburn School District.[1]The plaintiffs contend that the defendants' actions -- or inaction -- violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1681 et seq., [2] deprived T.F. of his right to equal access to education giving rise to a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and violated duties allegedly owed by various defendants to various of the plaintiffs under several related theories of negligence. This court has jurisdiction over this matter under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 (federal question), 1343 (civil rights), and 1367 (supplemental jurisdiction).

         The defendants moved to dismiss several of the plaintiffs' claims. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The plaintiffs amended their complaint as of right in response, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 15, prompting the defendants to renew their motions to dismiss. The plaintiffs subsequently withdrew several of their negligence[3]claims and moved to amend their complaint a second time, this time to remove the withdrawn claims and add factual allegations in support of the plaintiffs' negligence claims against McSweeney. For the reasons discussed more fully infra Part IV, the court denies that motion.

         In their First Amended Complaint, the plaintiffs assert a variety of claims, only five of which remain subject to defendants' motions to dismiss. Specifically, the various defendants move to dismiss T.F.'s § 1983 claims against the Spaulding defendants (counts 3 and 4); T.F.'s negligence claim against McSweeney (count 8); and Ashley's and Kevin's negligence claims against McSweeney and the Spaulding defendants (counts 9 and 10) .[4] Having heard oral argument, the court grants the defendants' motions as to Ashley's and Kevin's negligence claims and denies them as to the rest.

         I. Applicable legal standard

         In analyzing a complaint in the Rule 12(b)(6) context, the court accepts as true all well-pleaded facts set forth in the complaint and draws all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. See, e.g., Martino v. Forward Air, Inc., 609 F.3d 1, 2 (1st Cir. 2010). The complaint, read in that light, must include "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Martinez v. Petrenko, 792 F.3d 173, 179 (1st Cir. 2015) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). With the facts drawn in this manner, "questions of law [are] ripe for resolution at the pleadings stage." Simmons v. Galvin, 575 F.3d 24, 30 (1st Cir. 2009).

         II. Background

         This case arises from events that occurred while T.F., a minor, attended Spaulding between May 2013 and June 2015. T.F. has educational disabilities defined under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq., as autism, emotional disturbance, and "other health impaired." Prior to his arrival at Spaulding, he underwent a series of psychiatric hospitalizations after he engaged in physically aggressive and sexualized behaviors. Toward the end of May 2013, T.F.'s individualized education plan ("IEP") team determined that those behavioral issues made a residential placement appropriate for T.F., and arranged for him to enter the residential program at Spaulding. He remained in residential treatment from May 2013 until June 2014, when he transferred to the day program at Spaulding.

         Shortly thereafter, the plaintiffs allege, T.F. began engaging in aggressive behavior at home. Though Auburn arranged for Spaulding to provide in-home services from a licensed social worker to T.F. at home for a period of time, his IEP team decided to terminate those services in November 2014.[5] During that period, T.F. continued to engage in sexualized behaviors.

         While T.F. attended the day program at Spaulding, a female student there began to interact with him in a sexual manner. On March 6, 2015, T.F. described some of that behavior to staff members at Spaulding, including that the female student spoke crudely to him, had grabbed his buttocks at one time, and had stuck out her chest while saying, "I know what you are looking at, " and told him to "start sucking." First Amended Compl. ¶¶ 37-38. T.F. expressed discomfort with this behavior, and told Spaulding staff that he felt uncomfortable, even frightened, around this student as a result. Id. ¶¶ 37-39.

         T.F. continued to report encounters with this student to various Spaulding staff members between March 6 and May 27, 2015. According to T.F., the student attempted to hug him, remain near him, "ma[de] comments to him, " breathed heavily and panted near the back of his neck as she walked past him, followed him around, and "creep[ed] him out." Id. ¶¶ 40-46. More than once, he expressed fear at the idea of attending school because of this activity and concern that the staff failed to acknowledge the student's behavior and did nothing to intervene. Id. ¶¶ 39-42.

         In this timeframe, T.F.'s IEP team met at least thrice to discuss his progress and future placement. Id. ¶¶ 43, 45, 47. At a meeting on March 20, 2015, the team determined that he no longer required a placement at Spaulding and that another educational venue would suit his needs for the 2016-2017 schoolyear. Id. ¶¶ 43. The plaintiffs allege that the team did not discuss the female student's behavior toward T.F. at any of those meetings, id. ¶¶ 43, 45, 47, and did not notify T.F.'s parents of those incidents, id. ¶¶ 43, 45. The plaintiffs further allege that the report provided to Auburn and T.F.'s parents upon his discharge from Spaulding on June 26, 2015, lacked any mention of the female student's behavior toward T.F. or his discussions of those incidents with his counselor. Id. ¶ 48.

         On September 30, 2015, several months later and after T.F. began the 2016-2017 school year at a new school, Ashley discovered that T.F. had sexually assaulted his younger sister, W.M. on at least one occasion. T.F. was hospitalized and, upon his release in October, went to live with his grandparents in another state. Only in late October 2015, after Ashley requested T.F.'s records from Spaulding, the plaintiffs allege, did she and Kevin receive notice from the school about the incidents between T.F. and the female student. Ashley forwarded T.F.'s records to the New Hampshire Department of Children, Youth, and Families. DCYF opened an investigation and interviewed T.F., who disclosed that the female student sexually assaulted him at Spaulding. See Id. ¶¶ 69-70.

         Auburn conducted a psycho-sexual evaluation of T.F. On the basis of that examination, Ashley and Kevin unilaterally placed T.F. in a residential school that specializes in educating students who have engaged in sexualized behaviors. The plaintiffs then filed this action on April 22, 2016, seeking to recover from the Auburn and Spaulding defendants for violations of Title IX, a deprivation of rights under § 1983, and common law negligence. The plaintiffs have withdrawn certain of their claims, as discussed supra, and the defendants ...

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