Supreme Court rules in Davis case that schools are responsible for student-to-student sexual harassment

Contributed by
Nan Stein, Ph.D.
National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center

From Classrooms and Courtrooms: Facing Sexual Harassment in K-12 Schools
(Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1999 - all rights reserved).

On May 24, 1999, in a 5-to-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools are indeed liable for student-to-student sexual harassment, if they knew about the harassment and had failed to stop it. Justice Sandra Day O. Connor, writing for the majority in the Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (119 S.Ct. 1661) indicated that school districts would be liable under federal law Title IX "& only if they were deliberately indifferent. to information about severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive harassment among students." Joined in the majority opinion by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer, this decision now sends the six-year legal battle back to the district court level for trial, reversing the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

This case involved LaShonda Davis, a girl in the fifth grade in Macon, GA (Monroe County Board of Education) who was repeatedly groped and touched on her breasts and in her genital area by one of her classmates. She told several teachers and along with her parents, asked that her seat be moved. But, the teachers did nothing to stop the harassment and wouldn't move her seat; her grades began to fall and she became suicidal. Her parents filed a criminal complaint against the boy, who eventually pled guilty to sexual battery and ultimately moved away from the school district. LaShonda's family, on the other hand, took out a sex discrimination/sexual harassment lawsuit against the school district in 1994.

The reaction of the dissenting Justices seemed bitterer than the reactions from those of the attorneys who lost the case. Julie Underwood, the general counsel for the National School Boards Association who served as co-counsel for the defendant, the Monroe County School Board, called the decision "& a standard we can live with and in fact are living up to already;...It gives school districts some flexibility, so they won. t be litigating over every student peck on the cheek of another student."

On the other hand, the blistering dissent, half again as long as the majority opinion at 34 pages, written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, was delivered from the bench in an unusual departure from the Court's usual practice. The dissent, signed by Justices Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas along with Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, warned of federal intrusion into "day-to-day classroom logistics and interactions" and overreaction to behaviors that were characterized as "routine problems of adolescence."

While Justice Kennedy may have characterized this case as teaching "little Johnny a perverse lesson in Federalism," Justice O. Connor rejoined by saying that it "assures that little Mary may attend class."

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