A Commonsense Ruling on Sex Harassment ... May Change Rules for Lawyers Harassing Schools for Huge Fees

By Reiland, Ralph R.; Schuld, Kimberly | Insight on the News, July 27, 1998 | Go to article overview

A Commonsense Ruling on Sex Harassment ... May Change Rules for Lawyers Harassing Schools for Huge Fees


Reiland, Ralph R., Schuld, Kimberly, Insight on the News


By a 5-4 vote on June 22, the Supreme Court made it much tougher to hold a school district financially responsible for an employee's sexual misconduct. "The only way to find a school liable for damages," wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor for the court's majority, would be to prove that a district official knew of the misconduct of a teacher, administrator, coach or principal and did little or nothing about it.

The case began in 1993 when police in Lago Vista, Texas, found social-studies teacher Frank Waldrop, 52, a former Marine colonel, naked in the woods with student Alida Gebser, 15. There was no evidence that school officials knew about the ongoing relationship, which the girl kept secret. After being nabbed by the police, Waldrop quickly was fired by the school district and later stripped of his teaching certificate. He eventually pleaded no contest to a charge of attempted sexual assault.

"We're gratified by the Supreme Court's decision," said Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association. "It is important not to divert financial resources from the public schools when the school district itself engaged in no wrongdoing."

The court's four dissenters -- its most liberal members: Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer -- criticized the ruling as a rather dramatic departure from settled law, a break with the "should-have-known standard." Under that legal paradigm, the school district should have known about Waldrop and Gebser.

On top of opening deeper pockets to the plaintiff's lawyers, the should-have-known standard would have had the effect of shifting the bulk of the price for Waldrop's wrongdoing to the school district's taxpayers, students and other employees.

That price, given both the highly subjective definition of harassment and today's draconian penalties, represents a major-league threat to the financial stability of school districts, or any other enterprise. We're now at the point, for instance, where schools are overflowing with students who claim to have been victims of sexual harassment. "High-school kids" says Cathy Young, vice president of the Women's Freedom Network, "are herded into seminars where they are taught that sexual attention is demeaning to women, any annoying sexual overture is a crime and skepticism toward a sexual-harassment charge is the worst kind of insensitivity."

School districts themselves, in short, are manufacturing a student body of neo-Victorian plaintiffs who are conditioned to become indignant at racy classroom metaphors. …

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