Law Update

January 15, 1997 4 min read

Calif. District To Pay $250,000 in Student Sex-Harassment Suit

A California school district has agreed to pay $250,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that school officials failed to stem sexual harassment of a junior high school girl by other students.

The student, identified in court papers as Jane Doe, said in her suit that she endured sexually suggestive taunts and other verbal abuse from Kenilworth Junior High School students in 1990-92.

The suit said school officials failed to respond to her complaints, with one counselor allegedly dismissing the girl’s complaints by saying “boys will be boys.”

Under the settlement, school officials admitted no wrongdoing.

Lawyers for the girl, now 18, and her family said the settlement adds to the growing number of cases that have put schools on notice to respond to peer sexual harassment.

The case of Doe v. Petaluma School District was filed under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law that bars sex discrimination in public schools receiving federal funds.

In the California case, a federal district judge ruled last year that the plaintiff needed only to prove that officials knew about the harassment and failed to act.

The settlement was announced late last month, two weeks before the case was scheduled to go to trial.

Federal Jury Rules in Favor of Iowa District

In a separate peer-sexual-harassment suit, a federal jury late last year ruled in favor of an Iowa school district.

Lisa Burrow, now 20, and her parents sued the Postville district under Title IX, alleging that school officials failed to stem harassment of the girl from 1991 to 1994. The harassment allegedly began after Ms. Burrow reported that several students had damaged property during a party at her parents’ farmhouse.

Male and female students at Postville Community High School allegedly harassed Ms. Burrow on a daily basis by calling her vulgar names and defacing her locker and school papers. The Burrows’ suit charged that school officials knew about the harassment but failed to act.

In a ruling last year, a federal district judge in Cedar Rapids held that the Burrows had to prove that school officials intentionally discriminated against the girl based on her sex. The judge essentially sided with a line of recent court decisions that make it more difficult for plaintiffs to hold school officials responsible for peer harassment.

Nevertheless, the case went to trial late last year. After 13 hours of deliberation, the jury on Dec. 27 ruled for the school district after finding that the harassment of Ms. Burrow was not based on her sex.

“They concluded the harassment would have been the same if it had been a boy instead of a girl,” said Donald Gloe, a lawyer for the Postville district.

Gay Student’s Case Settled

A suburban Chicago district has settled a lawsuit filed by the family of a gay student who alleged that officials did not act on his complaints of abuse by other students.

The case of Doe v. Riverside-Brookfield School District marks the second time in recent months that a school district has settled a suit alleging harassment of a homosexual student. In November, the Ashland, Wis., district agreed to pay more than $900,000 to a former student who is gay, Jamie Nabozny. (“Gay Student To Get Nearly $1 Million in Settlement,” Nov. 27, 1996.)

The case from Riverside-Brookfield, Ill., involved a former high school student identified in court papers as Mario Doe. The student, now 19, alleged that fellow students grabbed his genitals and left notes referring to him as “fag.” School officials did not respond adequately to the student’s complaints, according to the suit filed in state court.

A state judge last September rejected the district’s motion to dismiss the case. The judge ruled that the district was potentially liable for failing to maintain the safety of a student. The judge dismissed a portion of the suit involving a second gay student for lack of evidence.

In a settlement announced late last month, the Riverside-Brookfield district agreed to reimburse both students for counseling and tutorial and education services, said William J. Borah, the lawyer for the students.

The amount of the settlement was not disclosed, although it is believed to be far less than the $1 million in damages originally sought for each student.

Mark Lies, a lawyer for the district, said school officials admitted no liability in agreeing to the settlement.

Appeals Court Overturns $7 Million Texas Award

A federal appeals court has thrown out a $7 million jury award that a Texas school district won against its insurance company in a dispute over whether the district’s insurance policy covered the district’s liability for sexual abuse of children by one of its teachers.

The Canutillo district sued the National Union Fire Insurance Co. of Pittsburgh after the insurer said it could not reimburse the district for the $1 million settlement of one suit stemming from the teacher’s sexual abuse of children in 1989.

The company said its “School Leaders” insurance policy excluded claims arising out of criminal conduct and bodily injury and thus it was not responsible. The teacher was convicted of criminal charges in the incidents.

A federal district judge ruled for the school district on several claims against the insurance company, and the jury awarded about $70,000 in actual damages and $7 million in punitive damages.

But in a Nov. 13 ruling in Canutillo Independent School District v. National Union Fire Insurance Co., a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit overturned the jury award.

The panel ruled that the district’s liability arose out of criminal actions by the teacher that were clearly excluded by the insurance policy held by National Union.