Students Claiming Sex Harassment Win Right To Sue
WASHINGTON--Victims of sexual harassment and other forms of sex discrimination in schools may sue for monetary damages under federal civil-rights law, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week.
The decision, in a case brought by a former Georgia high-school student who alleged she had been sexually harassed and abused by a teacher, greatly expands the ability of students to obtain redress from school districts for acts of discrimination.
The ruling "could result in some substantial damage awards,'' said Gwendolyn H. Gregory, the deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association.
The High Court's Feb. 26 decision represented a rejection of the position of the Bush Administration and the Gwinnett school district, which argued that the Congress did not intend to provide a damages remedy when it approved Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The law bars sexual discrimination in federally funded schools and colleges.
"Absent clear direction to the contrary by Congress, the federal courts have the power to award any appropriate relief'' in a private lawsuit brought under a federal statute, said the majority opinion by Associate Justice Byron R. White in Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools (Case No. 90-918).
"Unquestionably, Title IX placed on the Gwinnett County Schools the duty not to discriminate on the basis of sex,'' Justice White wrote.
"When a supervisor sexually harasses a subordinate because of the subordinate's sex, that supervisor 'discriminate[s]' on the basis of sex,'' he contended, quoting the Court's 1986 precedent on sexual harassment in the workplace, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson.
"We believe the same rule should apply when a teacher sexually harasses and abuses a student,'' Justice White added.
'Real Teeth' Seen in Title IX
Women's-rights groups and others that had taken Ms. Franklin's side said they were surprised and elated by the Court's 9-to-0 ruling.
"This sends a clear message to schools and universities throughout the country that there is real teeth in Title IX, particularly with respect to sexual harassment,'' said Joel I. Klein, the lawyer who argued Ms. Franklin's case before the Justices.
"In the long term, the message to educational institutions that discrimination costs money will only heighten efforts to eliminate it,'' said Ellen J. Vargyas, the senior counsel to the National Women's Law Center in Washington.
Ms. Vargyas added that more lawsuits are now likely to be filed against educational institutions alleging discrimination in employment and athletics.
Many legal experts believe, moreover, that the Title IX ruling will clear the way for monetary damages as a remedy for race and disability discrimination in schools.
The language and legislative histories of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars racial discrimination in federally funded programs, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by institutions that receive federal money, are similar to Title IX. So the courts may also extend a damage remedy to those areas of the law.
"We believe this decision confirms the Congressional intent that damages be available for people with disabilities,'' said Linda D. Kilb, a lawyer with the Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif.
Right To Sue Questioned
Justice White's opinion was joined by Justices Harry A. Blackmun,
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