Supreme Court Upholds Student Rights in Sexual Harassment Case
On May 24, 1999, in one of the most highly anticipated decisions of the term, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that school districts can be held liable for damages under Federal law in student to student sexual harassment cases. Liability occurs when the harassment is "severe and perversive" and the school district knows about the harassment and responds with "deliberate indifference." The case, Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education case (No. 97-843), was the last in a series of five sexual harassment cases the Court has considered since last term. The Davis case will now go back to the lower courts for an application of the test set by the Court, and a determination of the Monroe County School Board's liability.
This case arose out of complaints at Hubbard Elementary School in Forsyth, Georgia. Beginning in late 1992, a fifth grader, LaShonda Davis, was sexually taunted by a boy in her class who tried to grab her breasts, rubbed against her in the hallways and whispered that he wanted to "get in bed" with her. Despite repeated complaints from LaShonda and her mother, school officials failed to do anything to stop the boy. Davis sued the Monroe County Board of Education in 1994 under Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments. (For a detailed discussion of the Davis case see Monitor Volume 10, Number 2 or go to http://www.civilrights.org/lcef/monitor/).
Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer joined Justice O'Connor in the majority opinion. The Court wrote:
"We stress that our conclusion here that recipients may be liable for their deliberate indifference to known acts of peer sexual harassment does not mean that recipients can avoid liability only by purging their schools of actionable peer harassment or that administrators must engage in particular disciplinary action. We thus disagree with respondents' contention that, if Title IX provides a cause of action for student-on-student harassment, 'nothing short of expulsion of every student accused of misconduct involving sexual overtones would protect school systems from liability or damages.' Likewise, the dissent erroneously imagines that victims of peer harassment now have a Title IX right to make particular remedial demands. In fact, as we have previously noted, courts should refrain from second guessing the disciplinary decisions made by school administrators...
"The statute makes clear that, whatever else it prohibits, students must not be denied access to educational benefits and opportunities on the basis of gender. We thus conclude that funding recipients are properly held liable in damages only where they are deliberately indifferent to sexual harassment, of which they have actual knowledge, that is so severe, pervasive and objectionably offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school..."
Chief Justice William Rehnquist joined Justice Kennedy's dissent, along with Justices Scalia and Thomas. The dissent states:
"The real world of school discipline is a rough-and-tumble place where students practice newly learned vulgarities, erupt with anger, tease and embarrass each other, share offensive notes, flirt, push and shove in the halls, grab and offend....
"It is a far different question, however, whether it is either proper or useful to label this immature, childish behavior gender discrimination. Nothing in Title IX suggests that Congress even contemplated this question, much less answered it in the affirmative in unambiguous terms."
Julie Underwood, of the National School Board Association supported the decision stating, "The standard has been set so high that it's a standard we can live with and in fact are living up to already." Although Monroe County had no policy at the time of the suit, Underwood remarked, "School districts have really worked hard to have policies against sexual harassment and to help children understand sexual harassment."
The National Women's Law Center (NWLC), which represented Ms. Davis and argued the case before the Supreme Court, was pleased with the Court's decision as well. Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the NWLC said the Court had drawn "a line that makes sense" and that the decision "puts student-on-student harassment on a proper footing with the rest of Title IX."
In a decision last term, the Court held that student harassment by teachers was covered by Title IX (Gebser case). But the standard of "deliberate or reckless indifference" may make proof in these cases difficult (see MONITOR, vol 10, no.2).
To view the Court's opinion on the world wide web, go to: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/97843.ZO.html