The Clinton administration has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether school districts can be held liable under federal law for the sexual harassment of students by other students.
The administration, siding with women’s rights groups, told the high court that districts should face liability if school officials fail to address complaints of peer sexual harassment. The issue is a potentially explosive, and expensive, one for school districts.
The Department of Justice urged the justices to review a case from Georgia in which a federal appeals court ruled that districts cannot be held liable for such harassment under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
That law prohibits sexual discrimination, including sexual harassment, in public schools that receive federal funds.
The issue of peer harassment was not directly addressed in the Supreme Court’s June ruling in Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, which involved a teacher’s affair with a student. The justices ruled 5-4 that districts cannot be held liable for damages in a private lawsuit under Title IX unless an official in a position to take corrective action knew of a teacher’s harassment of a student and was “deliberately indifferent” to it.
Lower Courts Divided
On the issue of peer harassment, lower federal courts have been sharply divided about whether districts can be sued at all under Title IX.
The Georgia case involves allegations that LaShonda Davis, a 5th grader in the Monroe County schools in 1992-93, was repeatedly harassed by a male classmate and that school officials failed to respond to her mother’s complaints. The Davis family’s lawsuit against the district was thrown out by a federal district court in 1994.
In a 7-4 decision last year, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld that dismissal. Districts, the court said, cannot exercise the same control over the behavior of students as they can of their own employees.
“Congress gave no clear notice to schools and teachers that they, rather than society as a whole, would accept responsibility for remedying student-student sexual harassment when they chose to accept federal financial assistance under Title IX,” the majority on the Atlanta-based appeals court said.
But two other federal appellate courts have ruled that districts can be sued under Title IX over their handling of peer-sexual-harassment complaints. Those rulings have also been appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Clinton administration argues in its Aug. 13 friend-of-the-court brief in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (Case No. 97-843) that even under the liability standard set by the high court in Gebser, districts could still be liable under Title IX if they were deliberately indifferent to complaints of peer harassment.
The administration said the allegations in LaShonda Davis’ case meet the Gebser standard because three teachers and the principal knew of the harassment by a classmate and failed to stop it.
“When school officials know that severe or pervasive sexual harassment of a student is occurring under their education programs or activities, their failure” to address the problem violates Title IX “whether the students’ harasser is a school employee or another student,” the administration’s brief argues.
The Supreme Court had requested the administration’s views on the Georgia case. The justices could decide by early in their new term, which begins Oct. 5, whether to accept the case for review.