Supreme Court to Weigh School Sex-Discrimination Case

By Mark Walsh — June 09, 2008 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court announced today that it would take up an appeal examining whether Title IX provides the exclusive legal remedy for cases of sex discrimination in public schools.

The court will seek to settle a split in the federal appeals courts over whether an older, broader federal civil rights law, known as Section 1983, also provides a basis for lawsuits alleging sex discrimination in education.

Lawyers for a Massachusetts family argued in an appeal that claims under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 “are subject to very real limitations.” For example, the Supreme Court has ruled that school districts may be liable for peer sexual harassment in schools only when school officials had actual notice of the harassment and responded with deliberate indifference.

Meanwhile, Section 1983, which derives from the Civil Rights Act of 1871, is often the basis for sex-discrimination suits that allege a violation of the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

“Because an equal protection claim brought under Section 1983 may vindicate certain rights regarding school-place sexual harassment that are not actionable under Title IX, the Title IX statutory rights are not virtually identical to their constitutional counterparts,” said the parents’ brief in Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee (Case No. 07-1125).

The case arises out of claims that a female kindergarten student was subjected to sexual harassment by a 3rd grader while riding the bus to school. The parents were dissatisfied with school officials’ proposed response, which allegedly was to have the female student change buses. They sued under both Title IX and Section 1983. Both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, in Boston, ruled against their Title IX claim and held that the Section 1983 claim was foreclosed by Title IX.

The appeals court’s decision is here.

In a brief urging the court not to accept the case, the Barnstable, Mass., school district said that offering to place the kindergartner on another bus was a reasonable response to the alleged peer harassment, which the district adds it had trouble substantiating.

The district also argues that even had a Section 1983 claim been allowed, the school system could not have been held liable because it had no custom or policy of allowing peer sexual harassment to go unchecked.

(Thanks to SCOTUSBlog for posting the briefs.)

The court will hear arguments in the case in its next term, beginning in October.

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.