Law & Courts

Supreme Court Sides With Student in Sex-Bias Case

By Mark Walsh — January 21, 2009 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that Title IX does not bar victims of sex discrimination in schools from pursuing claims under an older federal civil rights law.

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.

The parents may now pursue a claim under the federal statute known as Section 1983, a Reconstruction-era law that allows plaintiffs to sue any individual who violates their civil rights under color of law. In some cases, the statute may offer wider protections than Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars sex discrimination in federally funded education programs.

“We conclude that Title IX was not meant to be an exclusive mechanism for addressing gender discrimination in schools, or as a substitute for Section 1983 suits as a means of enforcing constitutional rights,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the court today in Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee (Case No. 07-1125).

The case arose from claims that the kindergarten girl was subjected to sexual harassment by a 3rd-grade boy while riding the bus to school in the 2000-01 academic year. Each time the girl wore a dress to school, the boy allegedly forced her to lift her skirt, pull down her pants, and spread her legs, according to court papers.

The 4,460-student Barnstable, Mass., district and local police investigated the parents’ complaints, but the police found there was insufficient evidence to proceed with any criminal charges against the 3rd grader, court papers say.

The school district offered to place the girl on another bus—a proposal that dissatisfied her parents, because they felt it was a form of punishing the victim. They requested that the alleged harasser be removed from their daughter’s bus or that an adult monitor ride the bus.

The school district said that because it had trouble substantiating the kindergartner’s allegations, offering to place her on another bus was a reasonable response to the alleged peer harassment.

Difference in Coverage

The parents sued the district under both Title IX and Section 1983. Both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, in Boston, ruled that the family could not prevail under Title IX because the school district did not act with “deliberate indifference” to the complaints, which is the standard under the Supreme Court’s decisions on district liability for sexual harassment of students. The lower courts went on to rule that the Section 1983 claim, which alleged that the girl’s 14th Amendment equal-protection rights were violated, was foreclosed by Title IX.

The federal appeals courts were divided on the question of whether Title IX was the only statute under which sex-discrimination claims in education could be pursued, and the Supreme Court accepted the case the resolve the conflict.

In his opinion for the Supreme Court, Justice Alito rejected the conclusion of the appeals court that Congress meant to bar Section 1983 claims for sex discrimination in schools when it passed Title IX.

The School Law Blog

A comparison of the two statutes shows that in some circumstances they cover different potential legal targets or offer different remedies, he said. Title IX is aimed at educational institutions that receive federal funds, but it has been interpreted as not authorizing lawsuits against teachers, school officials, or other individuals, Justice Alito said. Section 1983, meanwhile, may be used to sue individuals, as long as they are acting with government authority, the justice noted.

Furthermore, Justice Alito said, Title IX exempts from its coverage certain institutions, such as military-service schools and traditionally single-sex public colleges, that may be subject to suits under Section 1983.

Justice Alito said that even though the parents in the case were not able to show that school officials were deliberately indifferent to their complaints under Title IX, they should be allowed the opportunity in federal district court to pursue their claims that school officials discriminated in their investigation of student misbehavior and in the treatment of student complaints.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

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.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
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.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
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.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

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

Law & Courts Federal Judge Denies Parents' Suit to Block Florida's Ban on School Mask Mandates
The parents argued that their children, due to health conditions, were at particular risk if any of their peers attend school without masks.
David Goodhue, Miami Herald
3 min read
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on Aug. 18, 2021. The on-again, off-again ban imposed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent mandating masks for Florida school students is back in force. The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Friday, Sept. 10, that a Tallahassee judge should not have lifted an automatic stay two days ago that halted enforcement of the mask mandate ban.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on Aug. 18, 2021. The on-again, off-again ban imposed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent mandating masks for Florida school students is back in force. The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Friday, Sept. 10, that a Tallahassee judge should not have lifted an automatic stay two days ago that halted enforcement of the mask mandate ban.
Marta Lavandier/AP
Law & Courts Texas Attorney General Sues More School Districts That Require Masks
The Texas attorney general's office anticipates filing more lawsuits against districts flouting the governor’s order. Will Dallas be next?
Talia Richman, The Dallas Morning News
4 min read
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at the Austin Police Association in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 10, 2020.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at the Austin Police Association in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 10, 2020.
Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP
Law & Courts Can They Do That? Questions Swirl Around COVID-19 School Vaccine Mandates
With at least one large school district adopting a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, here is a look at the legal landscape for such a requirement.
5 min read
Image of a band-aid being placed on the arm.
iStock/Getty
Law & Courts High Court Justice Rejects Student's Bid to Block Removal Over Sexual Harassment Claim
Justice Elena Kagan denied a California student's effort to return to school after his 'emergency' suspension under Title IX regulations.
3 min read
The Supreme Court in Washington as seen on Oct. 7, 2020. After more than a decade in which the Supreme Court moved gradually toward more leniency for minors convicted of murder, the justices have moved the other way. The high court ruled 6-3 Thursday along ideological lines against a Mississippi inmate sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for fatally stabbing his grandfather when the defendant was 15 years old. The case is important because it marks a break with the court’s previous rulings and is evidence of the impact of a newly more conservative court.
The U.S. Supreme Court as seen on Oct. 7, 2020.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP