A divided US Supreme Court, in a case watched apprehensively both by schools and victims-rights groups, yesterday ruled that students may not sue a school district for sexual harassment - unless the district was "deliberately indifferent" to a teacher's misconduct and a student's claim.
With a plethora of harassment cases pending in lower courts and millions of dollars of liability on the line, the high court's 5-to-4 ruling signaled an important change in direction - making sexual-harassment charges more difficult for students who deal with unwanted advances by teachers or school officials.
Prior to this ruling, in cases as sensitive as those of teachers and students, the court had argued for a more generous allowance of suits. Today's ruling dealt with a 15-year-old girl involved in intimate relations with a 53-year old teacher.
Sexual harassment itself is arguably the most important area of law taken up by the Supreme Court this term. The court has ruled on only two prior cases dealing with harassment, which has begun to surface more loudly, and expensively, in lower courts.
In writing for a fractured majority in Gebser v. Lago Vista, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor stated that even though harassment is "an all too common aspect of the educational experience," damages may not be recovered "unless an official of the school district ... has actual notice of, and is deliberately indifferent to, the teacher's misconduct."
In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens argued the court should broadly interpret a 1972 federal law known as Title IX, which originally gave women students the right to participate in school sports on an equal basis with men. Since 1972, Mr. Stevens said, the court has ruled that the intent of Title IX goes far past the sexual discrimination it was originally intended to remedy and can include sexual-harassment charges.
"Many of these harassment cases are not going to get very far now," says Mark Tushnet of Georgetown University :Law School. "The court is reversing direction, saying it is unwilling to go past what Congress has authorized."
Origin of the case
Today's ruling stems from a case involving Star Gebser, who was 14 when she enrolled in a middle school program for gifted students in Lago Vista, Texas. The group attended a high school seminar on "great books" led by teacher Frank Waldrop. Ms. Gebser attended the school the next year and enrolled in a class taught by Mr. Waldrop, who began using suggestive language.
At one point, Waldrop visited Gebser's house ostensibly to give her a book, but ended up kissing and fondling her. She took a summer course with him. A sexual relationship began, though it did not take place on school property.
Waldrop taught courses that Gebser attended - and also began offering advanced courses that no one but the teenager enrolled in. In time, the relationship was discovered by a police officer who found the two naked in the woods together. Waldrop, who had earlier denied any wrongdoing, pleaded guilty to statutory rape.
In an element important to the court's ruling, two parents at one point visited the school's principal to complain about sexual remarks and imagery that several students noticed in class. The principal informed a guidance counselor, but did not report the grievance to the Lago Vista superintendent.
The Gebsers sued Lago Vista School District. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals eventually ruled that because the school did not know of the relationship, it was not liable.
Lawyers for the school district told the high court that it would be unfair to make employers legally responsible when they don't know.
But the court also had been warned that letting unaware employers off the hook would reward "ostrich-like behavior." Indeed, lawyers for Gebser argued that a district should be held financially liable if it knew or should have known about sexual harassment, or if it had inadequate procedures to prevent, discover, and eradicate harassment.
Stevens's dissenting opinion accused the court of putting "protection of the school district's purse above the protection of immature high-school students."
The close 5-to-4 ruling was especially heartbreaking to women's groups around the country. "By a one-vote majority, this court takes away from students in this country an important avenue of redress," says Marsha Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center. "Sexual harassment is a serious problem that limits girls' aspirations."
Other harassment rulings
Earlier this spring, in another important decision, the justices ruled that members of the same sex can prosecute each other for unwelcome assault or harm that is sexual in nature.
The most potentially far-reaching harassment ruling of the term is still to be decided by the end of June. The court will weigh in on Ellerth v. Burlington, determining whether a sexual-misconduct suit can be brought against an employer for the behavior of a supervisor - even if the victim did not suffer a loss of job or pay.