Classroom harassment

Supreme Court: Schools that do not respond to student sexual misbehavior face liability.

June 01, 1999

IF THEY haven't already, school systems now must take sexual harassment seriously.

The Supreme Court last week made school districts liable for damages if they ignore complaints of severe, pervasive sexual harassment by students.

Last year, the high court ruled that schools could be liable if teachers harassed students. Now schools must also be prepared to discipline students for harassment and develop programs that promote appropriate behavior.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the court's majority, asserted that a federal law, which bars sexual discrimination in schools and colleges receiving federal money, also covers sexual discrimination when it creates a hostile learning environment.

The case involved a fifth-grade Georgia student who had been harassed over a five-month period. A fellow student propositioned her for sex, rubbed against her and acted provocatively. She complained to school authorities, who took no action.

She became despondent. Her school work suffered. The court ruled the girl had been denied educational opportunities because of her gender.

The majority clearly indicated that school districts will be liable only if they are "deliberately indifferent," a high standard. Yet those in the minority predict a "flood of liability."

This overstates the consequences of the ruling.

Schools aren't expected to prevent all misbehavior. A single provocative remark or teasing isn't sufficient grounds for legal action. However, when behavior becomes so objectionable it affects a student's ability to learn, the school system could be liable, particularly if the misconduct has been brought to its attention.

Schools that have failed to develop programs to deal with sexual harassment have been put on notice. Even schools with preventive programs may have trouble if students with problems don't get the attention of administrators. The days of giving short shrift to student harassment charges are over.

Pub Date: 6/01/99

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