School worker groped by special education student can't sue - court

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REUTERS/Kyle Grillot

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  • Conduct was normal for special education student
  • Teacher's assistant could not show groping was based on sex

(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday said a teacher's assistant who was repeatedly groped by an 8-year-old student with Down syndrome cannot hold a Virginia school district liable for creating a hostile work environment.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that because the boy's behavior was normal for a special education student, plaintiff Regina Webster could not show that it was based on her sex or that it was severe or pervasive, which are both required to prove claims under federal anti-discrimination law.

In a 2020 lawsuit, Webster said the student routinely reached up her dress and groped her breasts and private areas and accused the Chesterfield County School Board of failing to adequately address her complaints by refusing to transfer her to a different classroom.

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Circuit Judge Roger Gregory wrote that schools face a difficult balancing act between ensuring that students with disabilities have access to an education and that employees feel safe at work.

"Unlike in many actions where the employer's options to remedy a hostile work environment include firing an employee for sexual harassment, the school board has a more limited set of remedies available," Gregory wrote.

Webster's lawyer Richard Hawkins did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Nor did lawyers from the Chesterfield County Attorney's office who represent the school board.

Tuesday's decision affirms a 2021 ruling by a Virginia federal judge who had dismissed Webster's lawsuit.

The 4th Circuit panel said Webster had not adequately alleged that the student's behavior was only targeted at female employees or that it was sexually motivated. And because his conduct was not unusual for a special education student, Webster could not prove that it was severe enough to back up a hostile work environment claim, the court said.

The panel included Gregory and Circuit Judges Stephanie Thacker and Pamela Harris.

The case is Webster v. Chesterfield County School Board, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-1545.

For Webster: Richard Hawkins of the Hawkins Law Firm

For the school board: Emily Russell of the Chesterfield County Attorney's office

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.