Student Well-Being

Riley Restates Rules Against Harassment

By Mark Walsh — July 08, 1998 7 min read
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The Department of Education will continue its vigorous enforcement of the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools, despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limits districts’ liability in private lawsuits over teacher-student harassment, Secretary Richard W. Riley said last week.

“It is discrimination when an elementary or secondary school teacher abuses the authority given to him or her by the school district and engages in sexual conduct with his or her students,” Mr. Riley said in a July 1 written statement.

The secretary said that while district liability for damages in harassment cases was limited by the high court’s June 22 ruling in Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, districts can still be found in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in schools receiving federal funds.

“A school district is therefore still responsible for taking reasonable steps to prevent and eliminate that type of misconduct,” Mr. Riley said. He added that the department will continue to enforce regulations that require schools and districts to have well-publicized policies against sexual harassment, to have procedures for handling complaints, and “to take prompt and effective action to equitably resolve sexual-harassment complaints.”

5-4 Decision

The Supreme Court ruling was a victory for school districts, which succeeded in limiting their liability for teacher-student harassment under Title IX.

“Schools have limited resources,” said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association. “It is very hard to rationalize suing a district for something its officials had no knowledge of.”

But Ms. Bryant said she welcomed Mr. Riley’s statement, and she emphasized that schools do not see the decision as encouraging greater tolerance of harassment.

“School districts take sexual harassment very seriously,” she said. “Their business is building a safe, nurturing environment for children to learn.”

The secretary’s comments also drew praise from women’s rights groups, which had reacted with disappointment to the high court’s decision.

Mr. Riley’s statement “sends a strong signal that schools should not misinterpret the Lago Vista as an invitation to turn their backs to sexual harassment,” said Verna L. Williams, a senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington.

In its 5-4 ruling in Lago Vista (Case No. 96-1866), the court said districts cannot be held liable for damages in a private lawsuit over teacher-student harassment unless an official in a position to take corrective action knew of the harassment and was “deliberately indifferent” to it.

“We hold that a damages remedy will not lie under Title IX unless an official who at a minimum has authority to address the alleged discrimination and to institute corrective measures ... has actual knowledge of discrimination ... and fails adequately to respond,” the majority opinion by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said.

The case involved a high school teacher in the Lago Vista, Texas, district who had an affair with one of his students, Alida S. Gebser. District officials said they had no knowledge of the affair, and once it was discovered, teacher Frank Waldrop was fired. The 650-student district argued that it should not be held liable merely because the teacher was its employee and used his position to foster the sexual relationship.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing in dissent, said that few Title IX plaintiffs who allege sexual discrimination “will be able to recover damages under this exceedingly high standard.”

“The court ranks protections of the school district’s purse above the protection of immature high school students,” he said.

The ruling settles a critical issue regarding school district liability for sexual harassment under Title IX. In a 1992 case, Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, the court held that plaintiffs could seek money damages under Title IX. But that case left open the question of the liability standard for districts.

Some lower courts had ruled that school officials must have “actual” knowledge about and have ignored sexual harassment between a teacher and student for the district to be held liable. But other courts had applied different standards.

The Clinton administration had joined Ms. Gebser and several civil rights and women’s groups in asking the high court to set either a “vicarious liability” standard, in which the district would be responsible for the misconduct of a teacher merely because he was its employee, or a “constructive knowledge” standard, in which a district could be held responsible if it knew or should have known of the harassment.

Justice O’Connor, joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas, rejected those lower standards.

She said Congress probably did not intend violations of Title IX to result in penalties to districts that exceeded their level of federal funding. The Lago Vista district received about $120,000 in federal aid in 1992-93. But a money-damages award in a sexual-harassment case would likely be substantially more than that, Justice O’Connor noted.

Distinction Between Laws

Some civil rights groups found it dismaying that just days after its ruling limiting the reach of Title IX in teacher-student harassment cases, the high court used two other cases to expand protection of workers from sexual harassment on the job. In Faragher v. City of Boca Raton (No. 97-282) and Burlington Industries Inc. v. Ellerth (No. 97-569), the justices said companies could be held liable for sexual harassment of workers by supervisors even if top company officials didn’t know about it.

But the employment-related decisions were based on a different federal law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“We really have difficulty squaring the Lago Vista decision with the Title VII decisions,” Ms. Williams of the National Women’s Law Center said. “Both statutes are designed to broadly prohibit sex discrimination.”

Justice O’Connor explained that Title VII is a broad prohibition against sex discrimination--as well as bias based on race and other such characteristics--throughout the economy. But Title IX, she noted, works as a contract between the federal government and school districts based on federal funding.

Secretary Riley found something positive in Justice O’Connor’s opinion because she stressed that the Education Department still could enforce its sexual-harassment rules administratively.

“Any sexual harassment of a student--particularly sexual abuse by a teacher--is a basic breach of trust between the school and the student and family,” Mr. Riley said in last week’s statement. “Schools owe students a safe environment that is conducive to learning and that affords children equal opportunity regardless of sex.”

Ms. Bryant of the NSBA, who formerly led the American Association of University Women, a group that has done widely cited research about sexual harassment in schools, predicted that schools would not be troubled by the secretary’s strong commitment to Title IX enforcement.

“The more specific help we can give to districts, the better,” she said. “We do fire drills a lot--we ought to be doing sexual-harassment training a lot, too.”

Open Questions

The ruling leaves some questions unresolved, legal experts said. Lower courts may have to interpret, for example, what type of school official qualifies as being able to take corrective action in a sexual-harassment case. Would it be a building principal? A superintendent? Or anyone with the power to hire and fire?

Another major aspect of the issue is “peer,” or student-on-student, sexual harassment. Lower courts have been divided about whether districts can be held liable at all for peer sexual harassment, regardless of whether district officials had actual knowledge of the misbehavior and failed to address it.

The Supreme Court has an appeal pending from a Georgia case that addresses the peer-harassment issue. Early this year, justices asked the Clinton administration for its views on the issue. The administration had not responded as of the end of the court’s term on June 26, presumably because it was waiting to see the Lago Vista ruling, which could have some bearing on its legal position.

So it is possible that peer sexual harassment will be the big school-law issue in the court’s next term.

A version of this article appeared in the July 08, 1998 edition of Education Week as Riley Restates Rules Against Harassment


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