In a 2008-09 term that included several high-profile cases involving public schools, the U.S. Supreme Court often sided with students, parents, and their access to the legal process. Those parties won victories in decisions on strip-searches, sex discrimination, and special education.
The end of the term on June 29 also signaled a change in the makeup of the court itself, with Justice David H. Souter stepping down after more than 18 years. The Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to begin hearings this week on President Barack Obama’s choice to replace him, U.S. Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor. She was expected to face some tough questioning from the panel’s Republicans, particularly on race-conscious policies in areas such as employment.
|U.S. Supreme Court: The 2008-09 Term: Progress and Problems|
The Supreme Court’s handling of four school cases in its recent term stands in contrast to the prior term, in which the justices considered only one case dealing explicitly with schools. (“Court’s Term Marked by Rulings In Age-Discrimination Disputes,” July 16, 2008.)
Martha M. McCarthy, a professor at Indiana University Bloomington who teaches educational law, said she was struck by the court’s tendency this past term to favor the viewpoint of students over that of school districts.
“The court rendered several decisions I would classify as pro-student, which is a bit surprising given the conservative nature of the current court,” she said in an e-mail, pointing to the strip-search case, Safford Unified School District v. Redding; a sex-discrimination lawsuit, Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee; and the Forest Grove School District v. T.A. special education decision, in which the justices ruled 6-3 that the parents of a child who never received special education services from a district may still seek reimbursement for the costs of enrolling in a private school to get such services.
The Supreme Court handled a number of additional cases with implications for schools during the term that ended in June.
Case No. 07-1125
Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee
Issued Jan. 21, 2009
The court unanimously ruled that Title IX does not bar victims of sex discrimination in schools from pursuing claims under an older federal civil rights law, known as Section 1983. The decision is a victory for the parents of a Massachusetts student who claimed that school officials failed to adequately respond to sexual harassment of their daughter—then in kindergarten—by a 3rd-grade boy on her bus.
Read the opinion.
Case No. 07-1428
Ricci v. DeStefano
Issued June 29, 2009
The court ruled 5-4 in favor of a group of mostly white firefighters who claimed they were victims of reverse discrimination. The court said that before an employer may take a race-conscious action for the asserted purpose of avoiding an unintentional disparate racial impact, it must have a “strong basis in evidence” to believe it will face liability in a disparate-impact suit under Title VII. The majority held that the city of New Haven, Conn., had to abide by the results of a promotional exam for firefighters in which no black candidates scored high enough to qualify for promotion.
Read the opinion.
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For instance, the unanimous Fitzgerald ruling, which concerned the claim that school officials had failed to respond adequately to sexual harassment of a kindergartner by a 3rd grade boy on her bus, “broadens remedies available for student victims of peer harassment,” Ms.McCarthy said. The court found that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 does not bar victims of sex discrimination from pursuing claims under an older civil rights statute commonly referred to as Section 1983.
In the Safford case, the court concluded by a vote of 8-1 that school administrators in an Arizona district had violated the Fourth Amendment rights of a 13-year-old student when she was strip-searched on suspicion of possessing the pain reliever ibuprofen in prescription strength.
The exception to the tilt toward students, Ms. McCarthy said, was the 5-4 decision in an English-language-learner case, Horne v. Flores. The court ruled June 25 in favor of Arizona officials who had challenged lower federal court decisions calling on the state to provide more funding for its English-learners. At the same time, a majority of the justices said the class action filed by ell students and their parents must be sent back to the lower courts.
Perry A. Zirkel, a professor of law and education at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., said that he, too, found somewhat surprising the degree to which the high court ruled in favor of students during the latest term. But he said each apparent victory came with caveats.
In the Safford case, the court did not ban school strip-searches entirely; it found that the search in question did not meet the standard established in the ruling. In addition, Mr. Zirkel noted, the court, by a vote of 7-2, found that the school officials involved in the search were not legally liable for their actions.
And in the Fitzgerald case, “all the student won was the right to sue,” he said, noting that students have a poor record of success in winning discrimination claims under the Section 1983 civil rights statute.
Francisco M. Negron, the general counsel for the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va., said he wouldn’t characterize the high court’s recent activity as “pro-student” but rather as “pro-process,” a trend he also perceives in some of its nonschool decisions.
“They’re willing to let a litigant have their day in court,” he said of the justices. “What it means is we can expect a lot more litigation [against school districts] in the lower courts.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as Student Issues Are Focus of Court