Student Well-Being

Clinton Administration Requests High Court Ruling on Harassment

By Mark Walsh — September 09, 1998 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Justices’ Request

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.


Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Personalized Learning Webinar
No Time to Waste: Individualized Instruction Will Drive Change
Targeted support and intervention can boost student achievement. Join us to explore tutoring’s role in accelerating the turnaround. 
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Social-Emotional Learning: Making It Meaningful
Join us for this event with educators and experts on the damage the pandemic did to academic and social and emotional well-being.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Opinion One Simple Thing You Can Do to Make Yourself Happier
A happiness and time researcher shares a simple hack to make experiences more pleasurable.
Cassie Holmes
1 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Student Well-Being Schools Are Not Identifying All Their Homeless Students. Why That Is Hurting the Kids
Hundreds of thousands of homeless students are not receiving the services they need, new report says.
3 min read
A young Black girl with her head down on a stack of books at her desk in a classroom
Student Well-Being Students Have Ideas to Address Mental Health Challenges. They Want to Be Heard
Students have solutions that can help teachers and school leaders support youth dealing with stress, anxiety, and other issues.
8 min read
Group of diverse people (aerial view) in a circle holding hands. Cooperation and teamwork. Community of friends, students, or volunteers committed to social issues for peace and the environment.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Student Well-Being After a Rash of Student Suicides, This School District Stepped Up
Hopeless at first over a student mental health crisis, Colorado's Cherry Creek school leaders decided to build a day-treatment program.
13 min read
Image of a bridge made of puzzle pieces with the middle piece moving to connect the two sides.
Nuthawut Somsuk/iStock/Getty