When sexual harassment invades the schoolyard

January 17, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- For a few minutes, the justices seemed to be going down memory lane. Bad memory lane. The word bandied about the Supreme Court chambers Tuesday was "teasing."

"I'm sure schoolchildren nationwide tease each other," said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

"Boys tease girls because they are girls, and vice versa," Justice David H. Souter agreed.

You might have thought that the classmate known as G.F. was just a Georgie Porgie who kissed the girls and made them cry.

Indeed, Davis vs. Monroe County Board of Education began with two 10-year-olds, G.F. and LaShonda Davis, who sat side by side in a fifth-grade Georgia classroom. But teasing -- "to irritate or provoke with petty distractions" -- doesn't quite tell the story.

Let us say G.F. was precociously predatory. He taunted LaShonda, grabbed at her breasts and vagina, regaled her with obscene gestures and threats of intercourse. Nobody stopped him.

After five months of this, after her parents tried to get the teacher or the principal to act, after LaShonda's grades dropped precipitously, after her mother discovered a suicide note, the family decided to give up on the principal and call the police. The "tease" pleaded guilty to sexual battery.

Nevertheless, the case wended its long slow way up to the Supreme Court because LaShonda's mother also decided to sue the school for sex discrimination.

She brought the case before the justices, who had just ruled that a school board could be liable if a teacher harassed a student. Now she has asked the court to decide whether they can be held responsible for peer harassment.

I'm not surprised that many of the justices expressed their worries about opening up a new area to lawsuits. A skeptical Justice O'Connor asked, "Is every one of those incidents going to lead to a lawsuit?" Justice Souter worried aloud about "federal guidelines . . . for every first-grade teasing."

I don't like teasing -- the word or the deed. We are too quick to trivialize the bullying that leaves children alone to deal with their own pint-sized tyrants.

But it is legitimate to wonder where you draw the line between teasing and harassment. How does a school, under fear of lawsuit, mete out punishment appropriate for everything from hallway antics to harassment? This is a problem that should be solved by teachers, parents and principals, not lawyers.

What happens, though, when those in charge refuse to address the problem? When a school knowingly and willfully stands aside and lets students create a hostile environment?

In one of the telling exchanges during the Supreme Court hearing, the lawyers for Monroe County claimed schools have no responsibility for any form of student-to-student discrimination under Title IX. Not even if boys block the admission of girls to the computer lab. Not even if the principal knows, not even if the teacher knows.

There has to be a compromise between the fear of frivolous lawsuits and the fear of harassment. And there is one -- no matter what those who sound the alarm and trivialize the problem say. The same standards that the court set up in teacher harassment can easily apply to students.

Any student, like LaShonda, has to prove that the behavior was not just obnoxious, unpleasant, annoying -- teasing -- but severe and pervasive enough to interfere with her ability to get an education. A pretty tough standard.

Student harassment is as devastating as teacher harassment. In this sorry case, all the authority figures in a rural Georgia school district turned their back on a 10-year-old girl. If they aren't held responsible, then Title IX isn't a protective law. It's just a tease.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/18/99

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