Sex-Bias Cases Include Fifth-Grade Fondling, College Sports

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide two thorny sex-discrimination cases, involving a grade-school girl harassed by a classmate and a dispute over collegiate volleyball eligibility that could revolutionize all college sports.

The harassment case stems from the reluctance of Monroe County, Ga., school officials to respond to a parent's complaints that a fifth-grade boy had fondled her daughter.

The case was brought by Aurelia Davis on behalf of her daughter, Lashonda, involving a boy identified only as G.F., who pleaded guilty to sexual battery. It recalls the criticism in the court's last term after the justices in effect refused to give schoolchildren the same protections from sexual harassment decreed for adults at work.

In the other case, the National Collegiate Athletic Association appealed from a decision won by former student Renee M. Smith, 26, of Wintersville, Ohio.

Acting as her own lawyer, she has shaken college sports by winning a ruling that the NCAA becomes subject to the federal law by receiving dues from 1,200 member colleges, virtually all of which receive federal funds.

The two sex-discrimination appeals were among 12 cases accepted for review yesterday in the term that begins Monday, making a total of only 45 cases accepted. That is far behind the court's rates of previous years and raises the prospect of the lightest caseload of written opinions in decades.

Both sex-bias cases hinge on interpretations of Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, which bans discrimination based on sex "under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."

In the case of school-board liability when students harass other students, Mrs. Davis wants the court to address anew its decision in June that Title IX could be the basis for a lawsuit against a school board when students were sexually harassed by teachers.

Mrs. Davis said her daughter endured five months of abuse at Hubbard Elementary School in Forsyth, Ga. In addition to attempting to touch her sexually, the boy rubbed against the girl and repeatedly told her he wanted to have sex with her.

The Justice Department opposed a 7-4 ruling against the family by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and urged the high court "to correct the error" and make it clear that school boards receiving federal money are obliged to deal with "known sexual harassment of students by other students."

One person involved in the NCAA case suggested the organization could be forced to match men's Final Four basketball expenditures dollar-for-dollar for women's sports, and perhaps seek some way of matching its massive television contract for NCAA football.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for Miss Smith's claim that she was denied a waiver to use the remainder of her four-year athletic eligibility in graduate school when she finished college in just two years. She played volleyball for St. Bonaventure University in the 1991-92 and 1992-93 seasons.

"The NCAA generally waived the bylaws restriction for males who transferred, more often than they did for females," Miss Smith said yesterday, seemingly taken aback by having the case she won taken for review.

She lost in the lower courts a separate suit against the NCAA under antitrust laws, and the high court has not indicated how it will dispose of her appeal on that case.

"I was under the impression I would be granted the same status as a male transfer student," said Miss Smith, who has just taken the California bar exam and is preparing for the Ohio test. She is searching for an experienced Supreme Court litigator to argue for her when the case is heard in January. NCAA official Wally Renfro challenged her discrimination claims, saying their lack of merit was lost in a procedural battle over when the NCAA is covered by the federal law. …