Student’s claims of bullying by Roncalli High School football players survives motion to dismiss

A lawsuit brought on behalf of a former Roncalli High School student who claims he was bullied and sexually harassed by members of the football team will proceed after a federal court rejected the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ attempt to get the case dismissed.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana denied Roncalli and the Archdiocese’s motion to dismiss in L.W. and J.P., Individually and as Co-Guardians of John Doe v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc. and Roncalli High School, Inc., 1:21-cv-02397.

In a 26-page ruling issued June 21, the court found the plaintiffs “have adequately alleged that John Doe faced discrimination on the basis of his sex, and that Defendants were deliberately indifferent to that discrimination.”

In September 2021, Doe’s guardians filed a complaint alleging their son was bullied, abused, harassed and hazed as a result of the high school’s and the Archdiocese’s “intentional, knowing, deliberately indifferent, reckless and/or negligent acts and/or omissions.” They claimed the defendants violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794, et seq. and Title IX, 20 U.S.C. § 1681, et seq.

Doe, according to court documents, has Down Syndrome and, as a result, has physical and mental impairments. He is described as “a bright, gregarious, likable, and social young man who looked up to, adored and idolized the Roncalli varsity football players and loved participating in the Roncalli football program.”

The complaint asserts that several varsity football players “leveraged their positions of power and exploited (Doe’s) disability-related vulnerabilities … .”

In one incident, the complaint states, a varsity football player videotaped Doe’s genitals while he was urinating in the toilet in the Roncalli football locker room. The video was then posted on a social media platform.

The dean of students, Tim Crissman, met with the student who took the video and gave him one after-school detention and then helped the student delete the video from his smartphone. Neither the student who took the video nor the other students involved were barred from participating in any football-related activities.

In a second incident, Doe was retaliated against for telling school officials about the video. He was “verbally threatened, coerced, and forced to perform sexual, embarrassing and humiliating acts against his will … .”

Doe’s mother, L.W., learned of the retaliation from an anonymous letter. She also filed a report with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.

A day after L.W. called the police, Crissman contacted her. He said the school had become aware of an incident where Doe was “treated with less respect than he deserved” and “they had investigated and determined that it did not occur.”

Roncalli had only conducted its own internal investigation into the matter. It did not report the incident to the police or the Indiana Department of Child Services.

In their motion to dismiss, Roncalli and the Archdiocese argued the plaintiffs did not adequately allege deliberate indifference to support the Rehabilitation Act and Title IX claims.

However, the court disagreed.

The allegations made by the plaintiffs “are more than sufficient to plausibly allege deliberate indifference by Defendants, given the nature of the harassment, the fact that the school facilitated the deletion of the Video, and the lack of protective measures followed by the Retaliation Incident,” Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson wrote. “Additionally, Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that Defendants had knowledge that unlawful discrimination had occurred due to issues with (the varsity football coach’s son) L.M.’s behavior before the Video Incident, and then the Video Incident ultimately leading to the Retaliation Incident. Plaintiffs allege that both the Archdiocese and Roncalli administrators knew of these circumstances.”

Roncalli and the Archdiocese relied heavily on Jauquet v. Green Bar Area Catholic Education, Inc., 996 F.3d 802 (7th Cir. 2021), and argued, in part, that two “isolated incident(s)” were a far cry from the “severe and pervasive” harassment in Jauquet.

In a footnote, Magnus-Stinson responded, “The Court finds that Plaintiffs’ allegations that John Doe was videotaped urinating (which was then posted on social media) and was ‘verbally threatened, coerced, and forced to perm sexual, embarrassing and humiliating acts against his will,’ including being videotaped ‘licking and sucking [Varsity Football Player]’s nipples,’ sufficiently allege ‘severe and pervasive’ harassment.”

The defendants also argued that the plaintiffs’ claim under Title IX failed because they did not connect the harassment or discrimination Doe experienced to his sex.

Again, the court found sufficient factual matter to support the claim.

“The fact that Plaintiffs allege that John Doe faced discrimination based on his disability does not foreclose a claim that he also faced discrimination based on his sex,” Magnus-Stinson wrote. “… And being subjected to hazing of a sexual nature, even when carried out by members of the same sex, can form the basis of a Title IX claim.”

The law firm of Garau Germano, P.C. in Indianapolis, is representing the plaintiffs. Taft Stettinius & Hollister, LLP, is representing the Archdiocese and Roncalli High School.

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