High court to rule on liability of schools in sex abuse cases Texas student holds local district responsible for teacher's actions

December 06, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- After years of sidestepping a widening controversy, the Supreme Court agreed yesterday to clarify the legal responsibility of school officials when teachers or counselors sexually molest or assault students.

The court took on a case from Texas involving a middle school girl who wants to sue a male teacher for damages over a sexual relationship that lasted for more than a year, when she was 14 and 15 years old.

The girl, identified in court papers only as "Jane Doe," contends that the school district in Lago Vista, a town of 2,200 people northwest of Austin, was to blame because it gave the teacher "complete authority" over her, even though high-level officials did not know what he did to her.

Because he was her teacher, the man "had the power to withhold or grant his favors as a teacher, the power to withhold or grant good grades and to govern every aspect of his students' conduct," the appeal argued. "All these powers aided him in accomplishing his purpose."

Their relationship began when she was a ninth-grader. The girl was taking part in a program for gifted students. To gain additional educational challenges, she was placed in a male teacher's Great Books discussion class. He began flattering her, then fondling her, leading to a relationship that included repeated intercourse.

When the court decides her case later this term, it will spell out the specific standard that will govern school districts' responsibility for sexual actions by teachers with students under Title IX, the federal law that bars sex discrimination in any education program that receives federal money.

If the court issues a broad ruling, the outcome could also affect another long-simmering issue: the responsibility -- if any -- of school officials when a student sexually assaults another student at school. Lower courts are divided on this issue, with some insisting that school officials must know about the student assaults and do nothing about them before they can be legally blamed. A case on it is awaiting the justices' attention.

The Clinton administration's position is that school districts should be held responsible for sexual harassment if it is common enough to create a hostile environment for students. But school boards across the nation generally contend that school systems are not responsible at all for student-on-student harassment and bear only limited responsibility for harassment of students by teachers.

Anne Arundel case

In Maryland, the issue of sex between students and teachers against students was highlighted in recent years by the prosecution of Ronald W. Price, an Anne Arundel County high school teacher, for having sex with three of his students. Price was sentenced in 1993 to 26 years in prison and is appealing his case.

After Price's conviction, a number of civil damages lawsuits were filed in state courts by students against their teachers.

Maryland education officials say that the issue is handled largely local school officials but that the state from time to time re- minds local school systems of their legal obligation to obey federal law on sexual harassment.

The Supreme Court's willingness to hear the Texas girl's case came as a surprise. Eight times since 1989, the court had turned aside, without comment, other cases that sought to establish a clear right for students under either the Constitution or federal law not to be sexually assaulted at school. Five of those cases involved teachers' assaults; three grew out of student assaults.

Inconclusive precedent

In 1992, the court left the impression in a teacher harassment case that students had a right not to be molested by teachers. But the court did not say so specifically and did not spell out how or when a student could win such a case. If a student did win, the court said, he or she could collect damages.

In the new case, a federal appeals court based in New Orleans ruled in February that a school district could be held to blame for a teacher's sexual assault only if a supervisor "actually knew of the abuse, had the power to end the abuse and failed to do so."

The Texas girl's appeal argued that the appeals court's standard "virtually immunizes school districts from liability." She asked the Supreme Court to rule that school districts must have a policy against sexual harassment and must set up procedures so that students can complain and school officials will act on those complaints.

If they have no such policy or procedure, or merely "pay lip service" to those requirements, the girl argued, the school districts should be liable for damages.

Pub Date: 12/06/97

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