Student Well-Being

Law Update

March 20, 2002 4 min read
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L.A. Teacher Wins $4.35 Million Harassment Verdict

A Los Angeles civil jury has awarded $4.35 million to a former high school teacher who alleged that administrators did not do enough to thwart an underground student newspaper that made crude assertions about her. Her lawsuit against the nation’s second-largest school district cited sexual harassment, among other allegations.

The general counsel of the 737,000-student Los Angeles Unified district said last week that he would recommend that the March 8 jury verdict be appealed, but that the final decision would rest with the school board.

Janis Adams, who taught at Palisades High School, a charter school under the control of the district, brought the case in Los Angeles Superior Court. According to her lawsuit, several students distributed an underground newspaper in the spring of 2000 that included explicit discussions of oral sex and pornographic films.

One edition included an article with the headline “The Tale of the Diaper and the Porno,” which claimed Ms. Adams wore adult diapers and “was once a porno star.” Her suit said that Ms. Adams is a former actress but “has never appeared in any pornographic film” nor worn adult diapers.

The article led to harassing comments from students, her suit said. Matters only got worse as subsequent editions of the newspaper, titled The Occasional Blow Job, included further vulgar references to Ms. Adams and members of her family.

Her suit said that school administrators took “preliminary disciplinary action” against some students involved in the newspaper but failed to stop its distribution on campus. “As a result, [Ms. Adams] was subjected to an unwelcome, hostile, offensive work environment, which [the district] failed and refused to remedy,” the suit argued.

The suit alleged sexual harassment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and defamation. The defamation claim was not pursued.

The seven-woman, five-man jury deliberated for about 3 1/2 hours before returning a verdict that the district had “failed to take immediate and corrective action once it became aware of the harassing conduct.” It awarded Ms. Adams $1.1 million for lost earnings and $3.25 million for emotional distress.

Gloria Allred, the nationally prominent lawyer who represents Ms. Adams, said in an interview last week that the jury sent a message that “teachers need and deserve protection.”

“We are thrilled with this result,” she said, “because the case is the first of its kind in the nation in which a teacher has won a case against a school district because of sexual harassment by students.”

“Free speech has limits,” Ms. Allred added. “An employer has a duty to protect its employees from sexually harassing speech in the workplace, especially in a case like this where the sexual harassment is severe and pervasive.”

Hal Kwalwasser, the district’s lawyer, said the underground newspaper had put teachers and administrators at Palisades High in a bind. After some of the students involved in the paper were threatened with discipline, the American Civil Liberties Union came to their aid and sued the district over their First Amendment right to free speech, he said.

“The first blush here was not to come down hard on these kids,” Mr. Kwalwasser said, “but to try to have a dialogue with them about the error of their ways.”

Gay Harassment: In another case alleging that a school district tolerated harassment of a teacher by students, a former Wisconsin teacher who said he faced taunts and other abuse because he was openly gay lost his case last week in a federal appeals court.

Tommy R. Schroeder taught 6th grade at Templeton Middle School in the 4,000-student Hamilton, Wis., district when he disclosed his homosexuality at a public meeting in the early 1990s. Beginning in the 1993-94 school year, some students began to call him “faggot” and suggested he had AIDS. He reported the incidents to administrators, but most of the harassment was anonymous and went unpunished.

He asked that the district provide sensitivity training condemning such harassment, but administrators responded only with a memo urging teachers not to tolerate anti-gay taunts, according to court papers. Mr. Schroeder transferred to an elementary school in 1996, but he soon faced harassment from some parents, including slashed tires on his car and accusations that he was a pedophile. In 1998, he resigned, citing a nervous breakdown.

His federal lawsuit alleged a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause because administrators took stronger action in response to cases of racial harassment.

A federal district court in Milwaukee dismissed the suit last year, and in a March 11 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed that decision. A panel of the Chicago-based court ruled 2-1 that the district did not discriminate against Mr. Schroeder in its response to his harassment.

“Unfortunately, there is no simple way of explaining to young students why it is wrong to mock homosexuals without discussing the underlying lifestyle or sexual behavior associated with such a designation,” said the majority opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Daniel A. Manion. He said administrators could, and did when possible, punish students who harassed Mr. Schroeder.

In a dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge Diane P. Wood said that Mr. Schroeder had suffered “severe” harassment and that his case should have gone to trial.

—Mark Walsh

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Law Update

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