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District Not Liable for Harassment of Student By Peers, Court Rules

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A federal jury in New York state has ruled against the family of a former student in the South Kortright district who said she was sexually harassed by boys in her 6th grade class.

The family of Eve Bruneau had claimed in a lawsuit that the girl, who is now 15, was verbally attacked and inappropriately touched in 1994 while she attended South Kortright Central School. The suit sought damages under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funds.

But on Nov. 21, a jury in U.S. District Court in Binghamton ruled in favor of the district. A lawyer for the girl's family said last week that they would appeal.

"I think the jury simply did not apply the law," said the lawyer, Merrick T. Rossein, a law professor at the City University of New York. "We had a very good case."

A victory for the family would have been the first to award punitive damages under Title IX in a case of student-to-student sexual harassment.

In a written statement, Roger Thompson, the superintendent of the single-school district west of Albany, said he was pleased with the verdict. But he added that he regretted the time and energy the district had to spend to defend itself.

"The simple fact remains that when the case actually went to trial, there was no support for the plaintiffs' allegations against the district," Mr. Thompson said in the statement. "We had good policies at the time and we continue to update them."

Mr. Thompson also suggested, as lawyers for the district had done during the trial, that the real motivation for the lawsuit was the anger of the girl's mother that the school had dropped a 6th grade advanced math class.

"That was a side issue," Mr. Rossein responded. "But that's not the reason they took her out of school."

Second Ruling in a Week

The ruling was the second in a week that dealt with the issue of alleged sex-related harassment of students by their classmates, an issue that has emerged as one of the most closely watched topics in education law. ("In Harassment Suits, a New Era Emerges," Sept. 25, 1996.)

On Nov. 19, a federal court jury ruled that three school administrators in a Wisconsin district were at fault for failing to protect an openly gay student against verbal and physical abuse from his classmates. ("Gay Student To Get Nearly $1 Million in Settlement," Nov. 27, 1996.)

Though the jury found that the Ashland district itself was not liable, the district agreed to settle the case by paying almost $1 million to Mr. Nabozny, who had sued under the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, not Title IX.

In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and that plaintiffs are entitled to receive damages in Title IX cases.

But that case involved the alleged harassment of a student by a teacher, not by another student, and the lower courts have had no direction from the high court specifically on how to handle cases of alleged peer harassment.

In general, the federal courts have at least shown a willingness to allow cases claiming student-to-student harassment to be heard, Mr. Rossein said.

He said he has received calls from at least 25 lawyers who are pursuing lawsuits against school districts. "It's not going to go away," he said of the issue.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, ruled in Davis v. Monroe County that Title IX can be applied to cases of alleged peer harassment. A decision in that case, which was tried again before the full court, is now pending.

On the other side, districts have stood behind their policies on sexual harassment and have argued that they shouldn't be held responsible for behavior that they can't always control.

Ms. Bruneau's family will ask the district court to overturn the jury's decision. If they are unsuccessful, they will appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, Mr. Rossein said.

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