High Court Rules that Schools Cannot Ignore Sexual Harassment Among Students

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Lesbian and gay kids often suffer from student-on-student sexual harassment
May 24, 1999

(NEW YORK, May 24, 1999) -— The United States Supreme Court ruled Monday that schools that willfully ignore sexual harassment of one student by another can be held liable for violating federal civil rights law. Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund praised the 5-4 decision, noting that abuse of lesbian and gay students often involves sexual harassment from their peers.

Because Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination in public schools, is an important building block for creating safe and nurturing schools for all students, Lambda joined a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, which involves a Georgia fifth-grader who had been sexually harassed by a male student in her class.

Noting Nabozny v. Podlesny, Lambda's successful constitutional lawsuit against a Wisconsin school district that ignored student brutality against a gay classmate, the federal government recently clarified that sexual harassment directed at lesbian and gay students is also covered by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn said, "Sexual harassment of lesbian and gay students is a significant problem. The court has taken an important step in recognizing that school officials who turn a deaf ear to complaints of serious harassment and violence themselves facilitate the denial of educational opportunities to harassed students."

Lambda Staff Attorney David Buckel said, "Today's decision is very important to our struggle to make schools safe for lesbian and gay students, as violence and harassment by peers is the most common form these problems take."

"The High Court ruling sustains one of the many tools available to stop the harassment of lesbian and gay students," said Stephen R. Scarborough, staff attorney at Lambda's Southern Regional Office in Atlanta.

Writing for the majority in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said lawsuits may be filed against school officials who knowingly and deliberately ignore student-on-student harassment.

The ruling remands the case to the district court, vacating an Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that dismissed the lawsuit. The case was filed by Aurelia Davis, seeking damages after public school administrators in Monroe county, Georgia, ignored severe sexual harassment against her daughter LaShonda.

Referring to Title IX, O'Connor wrote, "The statute makes clear that, whatever else it prohibits, students must not be denied access to educational benefits and opportunities on the basis of gender."

Lambda, the nation's oldest and largest legal organization serving lesbians and gay men, joined an amicus brief authored by NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

(Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, No. 97-843)


Contact: Peg Byron 212-809-8585 x 230, 888-987-1984 (pager); David Buckel 212-809-8585 x 212


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