Sexual Harassment: The Supreme Court Speaks

By Mann, Richard L.; Hughes, William | American Secondary Education, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Sexual Harassment: The Supreme Court Speaks


Mann, Richard L., Hughes, William, American Secondary Education


On June 22, 1998, in a five-to-four decision, the United States Supreme Court (Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, U.S. 118 S..Ct. 1998, 141 L.Ed.2d 277 (1998)) held that school districts cannot be sued for money damages under Title IX if a teacher sexually harasses a student unless a school official knows of the abuse and fails to take the necessary actions to stop the abuse. This case was watched closely both by schools and by victimsrights groups. The Court's decision in Gebser makes it more difficult for a school to be held liable for sexual misconduct by employees against students.

Background

A 53-year-old public high school teacher had an affair with one of his 15-year-old female students. The student never reported the incidents to school authorities. She testified that ". . . while she realized Waldrop's conduct was improper, she was uncertain how to react and wanted to continue having him as a teacher."

In January of 1993, a police officer found the teacher and Gebser having sex. The officer arrested the teacher. Lago Vista school district fired him, and his teaching license was subsequently revoked. However, although required by federal law, the district had never instituted an official grievance procedure for filing sexual harassment complaints. The district also had failed to implement any type of formal anti harassment policy

The affair ended, and the mother of the student, on behalf of her daughter and the mother herself, brought the action against the Lago Vista Independent School District.

The school officials apparently had no knowledge of the relationship between the teacher and his student. The mother requested that the Federal District Court in San Antonio apply the legal theory of strict liability in order to rule that the district was responsible for the wrongful acts of its teachers. However, the district court ruled that, in the absence of actual or constructive notice by the school officials, there could be no liability

On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, the court agreed stating that liability would occur only if the supervisor of the teacher knew about the abuse, had the power to end the abuse, and failed to do so. This was a very conservative interpretation of Title IX.

Ruling

The case was heard by the Supreme Court. The Court rejected the mother's arguments. Further, the Court imposed a stringent twoprong test that must be met in order for a plaintiff to recover damages. The first prong is "actual knowledge," and the second is "deliberate indifference." The Court requires that an "appropriate person" must be made aware of the conduct in order to meet the "actual knowledge" prong of the test. The Court's definition of "appropriate person" is ". . . at minimum, an official of the recipient entity with authority to take corrective action to end the discrimination." This definition may leave many parents, students, and school officials confused as to just who is "appropriate," unless the school has adopted sexual harassment policies identifying who the "appropriate person" is for reporting of harassment.

Discussion

While it may appear that the Gebser decision was a victory for schools, the ruling in no way relieves school districts and principals of the responsibility to stop sexual harassment. On the surface, the outcome of this case may suggest that school officials need only to insulate themselves from being informed about instances of sexual harassment and claim ignorance. However, school districts and principals should not be lulled into a false sense of belief that student sexual harassment challenges are a thing of the past.

It must be remembered that two issues are at stake here. The first issue is under what conditions may students and parents sue school districts claiming a violation of their Title IX rights. The Supreme Court's response was that school districts are liable only if they knew of the harassment and deliberately failed to take action. …

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