Supreme Court agrees to consider Ga. case of student sex harassment Justices announce docket of 12 matters for 1998-1999 session

September 30, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writers Liz Bowie, Howard Libit, Erika D. Peterman and Jackie Powder contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, told that students' sexual harassment of other students is a serious and fast-growing problem, stepped into the matter yesterday by agreeing to rule on the duty of school boards or college administrators to act.

The court took on the case of a fifth-grade girl in Forsyth, Ga., and her mother, who complained to school officials about repeated sexual gestures and vulgar comments by a boy in the class.

After school officials failed to deal with the complaints, the mother and daughter sued the Monroe County school board, contending that student-on-student harassment is illegal under the Title IX federal civil rights law.

The Supreme Court added that case to its docket for a decision within the next year. Out of hundreds of cases that had arrived at the court over the summer, the justices agreed to hear 12.

In June, the Supreme Court set a high legal barrier for students to clear if they want to sue school districts over sexual harassment by a teacher. Now, it will turn its attention to the districts' responsibility -- if any -- when the harassment is done by a fellow student.

Some school systems in the Baltimore area expressly ban students' sexual harassment of each other and punish it with expulsion, suspension or required counseling. Baltimore City schools have a code that says such harassment will not be

tolerated.

Baltimore County warns its students to "avoid behaviors of a sexual nature that are unwelcome or offensive to others" and treats some harassment as a serious offense akin to assault.

Carroll County schools require that student complaints of harassment by classmates be reported to a school administrator or another adult. Howard County schools ban sexual harassment, without singling out students.

In the Georgia case, a federal appeals court ruled that Title IX -- a 1972 law that bars sex discrimination in federally funded education programs -- does not make schools legally to blame when the harassment is by another student.

Other appeals courts have ruled that when school officials are aware of sexual harassment of students by other students, they must take steps to stop it.

Supported by the Clinton administration, the Georgia girl and her mother took the dispute to the Supreme Court. The NOW Legal Defense Fund, a women's rights legal advocacy group, supplied statistics showing that upward of 80 percent of girls in school report being sexually harassed, most commonly by other students.

But in barring Title IX lawsuits for harassment by other students, the federal appeals court said Congress did not write the law to apply to "peer harassment." Schools, it said, were given no notice they would be responsible for students' sexual harassment.

School groups argue that state laws against sexual assault are adequate to deal with the problem. In the Georgia case, the boy involved was charged with sexual battery and pleaded guilty.

A Supreme Court ruling is likely by early next year.

The court took on another Title IX sex-bias dispute yesterday: a case on whether the National Collegiate Athletic Association can be sued under Title IX for sex bias in its regulation of college sports.

An Ohio woman denied a chance to play volleyball because she was in a graduate school different from her undergraduate college has been cleared by a federal appeals court to sue the NCAA. She wanted a waiver of that restriction, but it was denied.

She contends that the NCAA relaxes its sports rules more for male athletes than for women, in violation of Title IX.

The NCAA argues that it is not covered by Title IX because it receives no federal funds.

In other new cases, the court said it will decide whether police who have stopped a car and searched its interior are free to look into any passengers' purses or wallets, and whether it is unconstitutional for a state to limit welfare payments for new residents to the level they received in their former home states.

And, for the third time in five years, the court said it would try to settle the constitutionality of North Carolina's congressional districting. Three times, federal courts have struck down one or more of the districts, finding that the legislature was interested mainly in drawing boundaries along racial lines.

Pub Date: 9/30/98

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