Justices Hear Case Over School Harassment
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 1999; Page A4
The justices on the Supreme Court spent much of yesterday morning recalling their days in grade school and the constant teasing that occurs. And at the end of a sometimes heated session on sexual harassment, many of them suggested that because it is so pervasive, complaints of students sexually taunting their classmates might best be left to school officials to sort out.
"In first grade, boys tease girls because they are girls, and vice versa," Justice David H. Souter said. "The concern is there is no way to draw a line between every act of teasing and a federal court action."
The justices' comments yesterday came in one of the most closely watched cases of the term, involving the increasingly prominent issue of sexual harassment in the nation's classrooms. The question is whether a federal law prohibiting sex bias in schools that receive federal funds allows parents to sue for money damages when one student is sexually harassed by another.
The case was brought by Aurelia Davis, after her daughter LaShonda was sexually taunted by a boy in her fifth-grade class. He tried to grab at her breasts, rubbed against her in the hallways and whispered that he wanted to "get in bed" with her. Despite repeated complaints from LaShonda's mother, school officials in Forsyth, Ga., failed to do anything to stop the boy.
The mother sued the school district, claiming that under Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, which prohibits sex discrimination, schools should be financially responsible for a student who sexually torments another student. Parents increasingly have brought such lawsuits, and lower courts are split on whether school boards should be forced to pay money damages when students are victimized by their peers.
Verna L. Williams, Davis's lawyer, told the justices yesterday that Title IX should be read broadly to allow lawsuits against indifferent school districts if they fail to stop harassment or other sex discrimination that interferes with a child's ability to get equal educational opportunities.
But Williams had trouble explaining how judges could assess the seriousness of sexual harassment among children and how not to make schools liable for the ordinary teasing that seems a part of every child's school experience.
"I'm sure schoolchildren nationwide tease each other," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said. "Is every one of those incidents going to lead to a lawsuit?"
Justice Stephen G. Breyer said he was concerned about taking a problem away from schoolteachers, administrators and psychologists -- who presumably would be the best at solving a particular incident -- and putting it in the hands of lawyers and judges. "What's worrying is the gearing up of the great legal mechanism," Breyer said.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said he was concerned about creating "a federal code of conduct" in every classroom in the country.
Deputy solicitor general Barbara D. Underwood, representing the Justice Department and siding with the Davis family, emphasized that routine teasing would not be covered and that the harassment would have to be so severe that it would prevent a child from learning and getting educational benefits guaranteed by federal law.
But W. Warren Plowden Jr., representing the Monroe County Board of Education, urged the justices not "to open the courthouse door" to all manner of complaints, saying the potential for litigation and costs to schools is enormous.
A ruling in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education is expected by summer.
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