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District May Be Held Liable for Harassment, Court Rules

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Reversing a lower-court ruling, a federal appeals court in Atlanta last week found that a school district can be held liable for the sexual harassment of one student by another.

The 2-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit said that under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 a district can be sued for money damages if school authorities know about but fail to act on a "sexually hostile educational environment" created by student-to-student sexual harassment.

Title IX forbids sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funds.

The Feb. 14 ruling in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education is believed to be the first time a federal appellate court has found that Title IX covers such a situation in a school district.

"I think it sends a very clear message to schools that once they know of sexual harassment that is happening to a student ... they have an obligation to respond appropriately," said Deborah L. Brake, a senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center in Washington who worked on the case.

The appellate ruling in the Georgia case sets a significant legal precedent for other school districts, said Gwendolyn Gregory, the deputy general counsel for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. "Schools are just being held responsible for everything," she said.

William Prescott, a Macon, Ga., lawyer who represented the Monroe County district, agreed: "I think this opens the floodgates for an enormous amount of litigation."

The circuit court reversed a 1994 U.S. District Court ruling that dismissed the lawsuit of parent Aurelia Davis saying she did not have a claim against the Monroe County schools under Title IX. She is seeking $1 million in damages against the 3,500-student district in Forsyth, northwest of Macon.

Ms. Davis filed suit claiming that school officials allowed her 10-year-old daughter, then in the 5th grade, to be harassed continually over five months in 1992 and 1993 by a male classmate who fondled her and spoke to her in a sexually explicit way.

Despite repeated complaints, the Davises allege, school officials did not move the girl from her assigned seat next to the boy until three months had passed. In May 1993, the male classmate was charged with and pleaded guilty to sexual battery.

"It was like they were going to sweep a pile of trash under the rug," Ms. Davis said of school officials in an interview last week.

'We Can't Fire Students'

The 11th Circuit court based its decision in large part on the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, which held that a school district could be held liable for money damages for intentionally violating Title IX by allowing a teacher's sexual harassment of a student. (See Education Week, March 4, 1992.)

In last week's decision, the appellate court wrote that when a school knowingly fails to take action to remedy a hostile environment caused by a student's sexual harassment of a peer, the harassed student has been denied the benefits of an education as guaranteed under Title IX.

"A female student should not be required to run a gauntlet of sexual abuse in return for the privilege of being allowed to obtain an education," the circuit court wrote.

But Ms. Gregory of the school boards' group called it a big leap to go from holding a district responsible for the actions of an employee, as in Gwinnett, to holding it accountable for those of students. "We can't fire students like we can employees," she said.

Mr. Prescott, the school district lawyer, said, "In this particular case, there's no employee of the board of education or school system that was the harasser, so we don't think there's any basis for holding the school system liable under Title IX."

The district has not yet decided whether to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court or to ask for a rehearing before the full panel of 11th Circuit judges, he said.

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