The US Supreme Court yesterday set a new national standard of intolerance of sexual harassment in any form in most American schools.
In a 5-to-4 decision involving a Georgia elementary school, the high court made clear that school districts have a legal obligation under federal civil-rights laws to protect their students from sexual harassment - even when the inappropriate behavior involves two students.
The decision means that school boards must take seriously every complaint of sexual harassment made by a student, whether the alleged act is the result of unwanted attention from a teacher, staff member, or another student.
Earlier court decisions had established that school districts could be held liable for sexual harassment by teachers and staff. But Monday's decision marks the first time the high court has extended the liability to include so-called student-to-student sexual harassment.
"We don't want people making a federal case out of every schoolyard squabble, but this decision will teach boys that they cannot grope and jeer at girls without the threat of lawsuits," says Patricia Ireland of the National Organization for Women.
Indeed, at the time the case was argued, concerns were raised that such a ruling might result in a flood of lawsuits springing from the kind of playground teasing that is common at most schools.
But other legal analysts and educators say that school officials discipline students all the time for a wide range of inappropriate behavior, ranging from chewing gum to fighting, and that sexual harassment can be just as threatening to the learning environment and the well-being of students.
The majority of justices say in their ruling that the sexual harassment must be both severe and pervasive. In addition, school officials in a position to discipline the offending child must be shown to have acted with deliberate indifference to the student-victim's plight.
Schools "may be liable for subjecting their students to discrimination where the recipient is deliberately indifferent to known acts of student-on-student sexual harassment and the harasser is under the school's disciplinary authority," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court.
This is a high legal standard. But it puts school officials on notice that they have a responsibility to create and maintain an atmosphere at their schools where children are free from fear and intimidation.
One anticipated effect of the decision will be that school districts will have to enact policies and procedures to address student-to-student sexual-harassment complaints quickly, fairly, and effectively.
"It is one more thing on the plate that school administrators are going to have to worry about," says Paul Houston, head of the American Association of School Administrators. He says schools will now become "deep pockets for lawsuits."
Women's-rights groups hailed the decision as a broadening of the definition of sexual harassment. In recent years, the courts have expanded such protections in the workplace. This ruling gives broader protection in the classroom. "The court is now sending a message to schools that they do have a responsibility to respond to peer-to-peer sexual harassment that they know about," says Leslie Annexstein, a lawyer for the National Women's Law Center, which argued the case.
The decision stemmed from a case in which Aurelia Davis sued the Monroe County school board and two officials over a five-month "barrage of sexual harassment and abuse" her daughter LaShonda allegedly endured from a fellow fifth-grader at an elementary school in Forsyth, Ga. The lawsuit stated that LaShonda, now a high school junior, and her mother reported each incident to school officials but that the boy was never disciplined.
*Staff writers Marjorie Coeyman , Gail Russell Chaddock, and Kris Axtman contributed to this report.