High Court Limits Schools' Liability On Harassment
By Joan Biskupic
Students who are sexually taunted, groped or harassed by their teachers cannot sue school districts for money damages unless a district official actually knows of the abuse and does nothing about it, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The 5-to-4 decision in a case brought by a Texas high school girl who was seduced by her social studies teacher raises a high hurdle for anyone trying to hold school districts responsible under federal education law for abuse that occurs on their watch. Some women's rights advocates asserted that without such liability, schools have little incentive to uncover and prevent the sexually crude talk and touching that many students endure.
Sexual harassment in the nation's classrooms has become an issue of increasing importance to educators as they attempt to sort through reports of misconduct that flow into their offices. Recent studies show that the number of reported sexual harassment cases is on the rise and that many students, particularly girls, will be the victim of some type of sexual misconduct by the time they leave high school.
While the Supreme Court has ruled in only a handful of harassment disputes of any kind to date, yesterday's case was the first of three sexual harassment dilemmas awaiting action within the next few days as the court enters what is expected to be the final week of its term. The remaining cases could set new parameters for addressing such misconduct when it occurs in the nation's factories, offices and other workplaces.
"The number of reported cases involving sexual harassment of students in schools confirms that harassment unfortunately is an all too common aspect of the educational experience," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court. But she added that the "independent misconduct" of a teacher cannot be blamed on the school district that hired him.
Dissenting justices said the majority was putting the "school district's purse above the protection of immature high school students" who might fall prey to teachers.
Terry Weldon, who represented the 15-year-old girl enticed into an affair, claimed: "The court's opinion basically allows the school districts to put on a blindfold and to benefit from their ignorance." But school attorneys praised the court for protecting them from potentially devastating jury verdicts.
Lawyers on both sides predicted that the case could have a far-reaching impact, affecting not only instances of a teacher abusing a child but also cases between students a more common scenario in the nation's classrooms.
Rules for sexual harassment in schools are different from those in the workplace because instances involving students are typically brought under Title IX, a federal law that forbids sex discrimination by schools that receive federal funds and is most commonly associated with bringing equality to sports programs. Districts that fail to protect their students from discrimination risk losing public money, but the key question yesterday was whether they can be held liable only when their administrators knew of the wrongdoing and failed to end it.
The ruling does not affect whether a teacher can be criminally prosecuted, or whether a student can attempt to recover money damages under either state law or a broad civil rights statute. But lawyers say students have generally been unsuccessful in seeking damages through those avenues.
The case that brought the issue to the high court's attention involved a young woman named Alida Star Gebser, who was singled out by high school teacher Frank Waldrop when she was in a middle school program for gifted and talented students. Once she got to high school, Waldrop became her teacher and the two began having a sexual relationship. Gebser would later testify that she was both flattered and flustered by the attention and did not know who to tell about it. The parents of two other students had complained about Waldrop's classroom comments, and a school principal forced him to apologize to the parents but never reported the complaints to the school superintendent or investigated Waldrop enough to discover the Gebser matter.
After they were discovered having sex in a car by a police officer, Waldrop lost his teaching license and was criminally prosecuted. Gebser and her mother then sued the Lago Vista Independent School District for sex discrimination under Title IX.
In ruling against Gebser, O'Connor emphasized that Title IX is unlike the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which flatly bans sex discrimination and harassment on the job. Under Title IX, schools risk losing federal funds only when officials are told of some violation and fail to act. She said Congress did not intend to make a district responsible in private lawsuits for sex discrimination without a finding of actual knowledge and "deliberate indifference to discrimination."
Joining O'Connor in Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. They said the court had eviscerated a 1992 high court ruling that first opened the door for harassed students to recover damages from a school district. That ruling, which did not define the circumstances under which schools could be held liable, led to conflicting interpretations in lower courts. The dissenters said school districts should be responsible for teachers' misconduct on the theory that teachers are acting on behalf of the school.
Wallace Jefferson, lawyer for the Lago Vista school district, said many school districts would be financially ruined if a jury could hold them responsible for conduct they didn't even know about.
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