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  •   Harassment of Students on Docket

    Supreme Court

    By Joan Biskupic
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, September 30, 1998; Page A08

    The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether school districts can be held responsible when a student sexually taunts or gropes a classmate.

    Sexual harassment in the nation's classrooms has been a growing concern among educators as the number of reported incidents of abuse continues to rise. Parents of victims have tried in numerous cases to sue school officials for harassment, but lower courts are divided over whether officials can be held financially responsible when they fail to protect students from their peers.

    In a move that could lead to a consistent, nationwide standard, the justices agreed to take up a case of a fifth-grade girl in Georgia who said a boy in her class repeatedly tried to grab her breasts and other parts of her body and made vulgar comments to her. After five months of harassment, the girl told her mother that she "didn't know how much longer she could keep him off her." The mother complained to school authorities, but when they failed to stop the abuse, she sued the school board.

    A federal appeals court threw out her lawsuit, saying that a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in schools does not cover student-on-student harassment. It said schools are liable for teachers and other school employees who harass students but are not responsible for failing to stop a student from sexually tormenting another student.

    In the Supreme Court's order accepting the girl's appeal yesterday, the justices also announced the addition of 11 other cases for the upcoming 1998-99 term, meaning that so far the court has agreed to hear about 45 disputes this term. The regular court session does not begin until the traditional first Monday in October, but the justices have gotten into the practice of issuing their first set of orders for the term in late September to hasten the filings in the cases they accept and make it possible to hold oral arguments on those cases as early as January.

    Another case accepted yesterday tests whether states may temporarily limit welfare benefits for new residents to protect themselves from becoming "welfare magnets" -- as the states call it -- for poor families moving from states with less generous benefits.

    Lower federal courts barred California from enforcing a policy that would stop newly arrived poor families from getting the usual state welfare benefits and instead allow them, for one year, only the level they had received in their prior state. The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to hear California's challenge to a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the policy unconstitutionally restricts a person's right to travel.

    A ruling in the case of Anderson v. Roe would be nationally significant because more than a dozen states have tried to put in place separate benefit systems for newly arrived welfare families.

    In the sexual harassment case, Aurelia Davis sued the Monroe County Board of Education in 1994 for failing to stop the alleged harassment of her daughter, LaShonda. The mother said the boy's attempts to grab her daughter's breasts, as well his remarks such as "I want to get in bed with you," prevented her from concentrating in classes and caused her grades to drop. LaShonda suffered other mental and emotional effects, and at one point wrote a suicide note, according to the mother's complaint.

    Davis sued the school board under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex bias in schools that receive federal funds and permits private parties to sue for money damages when schools discriminate. But a federal district court said that school officials' failure to respond to the mother's complaints did not violate Title IX because "sexually harassing behavior of a fellow fifth grader is not part of a school program" and because no school employee had any role in the harassment itself.

    The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education that school officials have no responsibility under Title IX to respond to complaints of student-on-student harassment. Davis's lawyers noted in their appeal that other courts have held school districts liable and said, "It is time for this court to step into the fray."

    Last term, the Supreme Court ruled that school districts could be responsible for a teacher's harassment of a student, but only if the district had actual knowledge of the action and was deliberately indifferent to it.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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