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Court Weighs Payment of Damages in Sex-Harassment Cases

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WASHINGTON--Student victims of sexual harassment and other forms of intentional sexual discrimination in schools should be able to recover monetary damages because other types of relief may be of no value to them, a lawyer for a former Georgia high-school student has told the U.S. Supreme Court.

The High Court heard oral arguments Dec. 11 in Franklin v. Gwinnett County School District (Case No. 90-918), in which it must decide if Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 allows private plaintiffs to sue schools for monetary damages to enforce the law's ban against sex discrimination in federally funded education programs.

"Who are the primary beneficiaries of Title IX? It is obviously students," said Joel I. Klein, a Washington lawyer representing the former student, Christine Franklin.

Ms. Franklin sued the Gwinnett County district in 1988 seeking compensatory damages under Title IX because, she charged, school officials had failed to halt her alleged sexual harassment by a teacher.

Other forms of relief available to students and teachers under Title IX, such as court orders to end discriminatory conduct, legal-fee awards, and back pay, would be "useless"to student victims of sexual harassment, Mr. Klein told the Justices.

"The notion that this could be an effective statute for students without damages is an untenable one," he contended.

No Congressional Authorization

But lawyers for the school district and the Bush Administration argued that the Court should not recognize a right to monetary damages under Title IX because the Congress did not expressly authorize such a right when it passed the law.

"The most relief that would be judicially available would be equitable in nature," such as court orders, said Albert M. Pearson 3rd, a University of Georgia law professor representing the Gwinnett County schools.

"We believe the line between equitable relief and damages... is a rational stepping point," he added.

Stephen L. Nightingale of the U.S. Solicitor General's office said Ms. Franklin was "entitled to pursue only those remedies that Congress has authorized."

"There is no reason to assume that Congress" believed that compensatory damages were "necessary for effective enforcement of this statute," Mr. Nightingale maintained.

As expected, the oral argument in the case focused more on the question of remedy than on the details of Ms. Franklin's allegations.

The former student at North Gwinnett High School, now 21, has charged in her federal lawsuit that her economics teacher made repeated sexually suggestive remarks to her over a 15-month period and pressured her into having sex with him on three occasions. (See Education Week, Dec. 11, 1991 .)

Ms. Franklin alleged in court documents that school officials moved slowly to address rumors that she was being sexually harassed by the teacher and that even after a formal investigation was begun, the school's band director urged her to drop the matter.

The economics teacher resigned at the end of the school's investigation in exchange for having no further action taken against him.

The Education Department's office for civil rights also investigated the student's complaints and found violations of Title IX. But the office concluded that the district had resumed compliance with the law because the economics teacher and the band director were no longer employed and the school had agreed to institute a grievance procedure for future cases of sexual harassment.

Ms. Franklin's lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge in Atlanta in 1989, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit last year upheld the judge's ruling. The High Court agreed to review the dismissal at the urging of Ms. Franklin's lawyers and the Bush Administration, which cited disagreement among the federal appellate courts over whether Title IX authorized compensatory damages. A decision should come by July.

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