When Kids Harass Kids, Schools May Pay Supreme Court Broadens Definition of Sexual Harassment by Allowing

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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. …