US Supreme Court says parents can sue school officials under discrimination laws

In a Massachusetts case, a kindergarten girl allegedly was sexually harassed by a third-grade boy on a school bus.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The parents of an elementary school girl in Massachusetts have won their bid to sue school district officials for what they say were inadequate efforts to protect their daughter from a bully on the school bus who forced her to repeatedly pull up her dress.

In a unanimous decision announced on Wednesday, the US Supreme Court reinstated a lawsuit filed by the girl's parents under both Title IX, which bars gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funds, and a broader 137-year-old civil rights law called Section 1983.

The decision is important because it resolves a split among seven different federal appeals courts over whether Title IX precluded lawsuits filed under other statutes such as Section 1983. The high court adopted an expansive reading of Title IX, making it easier for plaintiffs to fight discrimination and unequal treatment.

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"Title IX was not meant to be an exclusive mechanism for addressing gender discrimination in schools, or a substitute for [Section] 1983 suits as a means of enforcing constitutional rights," writes Justice Samuel Alito in the court's 13-page decision.

The case stems from a series of incidents in Barnstable, Mass., in which a third-grade boy on the school bus repeatedly forced the girl, a kindergarten student, to pull down her underpants and lift her dress. When the girl told her parents, they reported the incident to school officials and to the police. School officials questioned the alleged bully, who denied the allegations. The bus driver and several students were also interviewed, but the charges could not be verified. No disciplinary action was taken.

Local police also conducted an investigation and concluded there was insufficient evidence to file charges against the boy.

School officials suggested transferring the girl to a different bus or leaving several rows empty between kindergarten students and older pupils.

The girl's parents, Lisa and Robert Fitzgerald, complained that these efforts punished their daughter, not the bully. They suggested placing the boy on a different bus or assigning a monitor to the bus. The school did not adopt those suggestions.

The Fitzgeralds filed suit in federal court alleging that the school system's response to their allegations of sexual harassment had been inadequate. They said the poor response had subjected their daughter to further harassment.

The suit was dismissed by both a federal judge and a federal appeals court panel in Boston. The lower courts ruled that the Fitzgeralds' lawsuit fell exclusively under Title IX and could not also be filed under Section 1983.

The lower courts dismissed the Title IX claim because they said school officials had acted in a reasonable manner in trying to address the parents' concerns and allegations.

In reinstating the Fitzgeralds' 1983 claim, Justice Alito writes: "It appears that the Congress that enacted Title IX explicitly envisioned that private plaintiffs would bring constitutional claims to challenge gender discrimination; it must have recognized that plaintiffs would do so via [Section] 1983."

Alito noted that the high court was not ruling on the facts of the case or the sufficiency of the Fitzgeralds' pleadings. The high court ordered the case back to the lower court to consider the parent's claim that their daughter's constitutional right to equal protection had been violated by school officials.

The case is Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee (07-1125).

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