The U.S. Supreme Court agreed late last week to step into the contentious legal debate over when school districts may be held liable for sexual harassment of students.
Last Friday, the high court accepted an appeal by a Texas woman whose daughter allegedly was involved in a sexual relationship with one of her high school teachers. The family filed a lawsuit seeking to hold the 789-student Lago Vista school district liable for the girl’s alleged sexual harassment under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX prohibits all forms of sexual discrimination in schools receiving federal funds.
Both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that the mother and daughter, identified in court papers as Jean and Jane Doe, had no claim under Title IX because district officials did not have “actual or constructive notice” of the alleged harassment. The Does, in fact, acknowledged that school officials had no knowledge of the relationship.
In their appeal to the high court in Doe v. Lago Vista Independent School District (Case No. 96-1866), lawyers for the family argued that the standard for holding districts liable for the discriminatory actions of school employees remains unclear.
“An opinion by this court, squarely addressing that issue, will clarify the rights of victims of sexual abuse and will serve to enlighten public school officials regarding their duty to supervise their agents and employees,” the Does’ brief said.
The Does argue that, whether they are notified or not, school districts should still be held liable for the sexual harassment of students in such cases.
Gwendolyn H. Gregory, the deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association, said that argument could open districts to a wide degree of liability “simply because the wrongdoer was the district’s employee.”
Yet, she agreed that the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case could give districts much-needed guidance in the area of teacher-student harassment.
But it may not resolve another burning school law issue: whether districts can be held responsible for so-called peer sexual harassment.
No Notice to Officials
The Texas case is noteworthy because it differs from numerous other recent Title IX lawsuits in which plaintiffs argued that school officials were repeatedly notified about harassing behavior but failed to take steps to stop it.
In the Lago Vista case, the family alleges that Jane Doe first encountered Frank Waldrop, a teacher at Lago Vista High School, while Ms. Doe was in middle school and became involved in an after-school discussion group led by Mr. Waldrop.
When Ms. Doe entered Lago Vista High in the fall of 1991, Mr. Waldrop allegedly singled her out for special attention, which the student thought was for academic reasons. By the spring of 1992, the teacher allegedly had had sex with Ms. Doe for the first of numerous times.
“Given the wide range of power a teacher has over a student it is unsurprising that Jane Doe was both flattered and flustered by [Mr. Waldrop’s] attention,” the Doe family said in court papers.
The student testified in a deposition that she did not know anyone at the school to whom it would be appropriate to report Mr. Waldrop’s alleged actions.
After the relationship came to light, the teacher was dismissed and pleaded guilty to statutory-rape charges, according to Terry L. Weldon, the lawyer for the Doe family.
The 5th Circuit court, in upholding the dismissal of the Does’ suit, said earlier this year that “school districts are not liable ... for teacher-student harassment under Title IX unless [a supervisor] actually knew of the abuse, had the power to end the abuse, and failed to do so.”
The district, which is about 35 miles northwest of Austin, initially filed no response to the Doe family’s Supreme Court appeal. But the justices requested a formal response, a clear sign that they were interested in granting review of the case. The case is likely to be argued around next March.
In a related development, the high court last week heard arguments in a dispute over whether the main federal job-discrimination law provides the basis for lawsuits by workers who claim they have been sexually ha-rassed by supervisors or co-workers of the same sex.
Lower federal courts have split on the issue of whether same-sex-harassment claims may be filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, among other provisions, protects “any individual” against discrimination “because of” the person’s sex.
For schools, the main source of interest in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services Inc. (Case No. 96-568) is the potential impact the court’s ruling could have for cases of teacher-student or student-to-student sexual harassment involving harassers and victims of the same sex.
While such cases have been filed under a different set of federal laws, the Education Department’s office for civil rights and many courts look to Title VII case law for guiding principles on school sexual-harassment issues.