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Supreme Court Watch: Sexual Harassment in a Texas School District

June 22, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


PHIL PONCE: In a 5/4 decision today the high court killed a sexual harassment lawsuit against a Texas public school district. That lawsuit had been based on a teacher’s sexual relationship with a student. We get more on the ruling from Jan Crawford Greenburg, legal affairs reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Welcome, Jan. Jan, what were the facts in this case?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG. Chicago Tribune: This case came about in 1993, when a Texas high school student sued the Logo Vista Independent School District near Austin because of a teacher’s sexual harassment. She had begun a sexual relationship with this teacher when she was in 9th grade, but she didn’t tell anyone at the school about it. The relationship ended about a year later when a police officer discovered the two having sex.

The teacher was arrested, and he was fired from his job. About six months after that, the student decided that she wanted to make the school district pay for this teacher’s, I mean, really horrible misconduct, so she turned to a federal education law and sought to make the school district liable for the teacher’s actions.

PHIL PONCE: And the education law that she sued under was which one?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: It’s called Title IX, and it’s in part of the education amendments which were passed in 1992. Essentially the law says that education programs which receive federal funding cannot discriminate based on sex. If they do discriminate, they will lose their federal funding.

PHIL PONCE: And what kind of a standard had she been arguing for?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The student argued that the school district should be held really to the same standards that employers are held to when there’s sexual harassment in the workplace. She said that the teacher, because the teacher had authority, that the school district should be liable for his actions.

She also argued that the school district should be liable if it knew or should have known about the teacher’s misconduct. Now, the school district said wait a minute. I mean, that’s a very difficult burden for us; we should have a much lower standard; we should be liable for this teacher’s misconduct only if we had actual knowledge of the misconduct.

PHIL PONCE: Just getting back to the facts for a second, she never told anyone.


PHIL PONCE: And no one knew about it, except the teacher and the student.


PHIL PONCE: And what was the school district’s argument?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That the school district said, you know, we should not be liable unless we had actual knowledge, and we didn’t in this case; we had no idea, and we screen candidates very thoroughly, and certainly we don’t expect our teachers to be engaged in this kind of conduct. So, therefore, we shouldn’t be liable in this case.

And that is ultimately what the court decided in its ruling today, that school districts under federal education law are not going to be liable for a teacher’s sexual harassment of a student unless the school district, an official at the school district, has actual knowledge of the sexual harassment and doesn’t do anything to stop it.

PHIL PONCE: So that’s a pretty tough standard for plaintiffs-

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: A very tough standard.

PHIL PONCE: –or for students to meet.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: It’s a very tough standard. As the court put it, the official almost has to have deliberate indifference to the harassment. That tough standard will make it, I think, much harder for students to prevail in these cases.

PHIL PONCE: This case involved financial liability of the district. The student can still presumably sue the teacher or what other remedies does the student have?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. And the court was careful to stress–and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the opinion-was careful to stress that the student still has legal recourse. I mean, she could turn to state law and sue the school district under state law. She could sue the teacher under state law. She could also sue the teacher under a federal law that’s really most often invoked in police brutality cases. So she still does have some avenues for recourse.

PHIL PONCE: But, in practical terms, though, if someone is seeking financial redress, then the district is the obvious-is the obvious target for deep pockets. So this will make those deep pockets, what, harder to get to?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Yes. And a lawyer for the student today so that essentially this will negate a student’s chances of prevailing on these kind of claims and really discourage them from filing suits. So it will make it more difficult.

PHIL PONCE: A pretty strong dissent from Justice Stevens.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: A very pointed dissent by Justice Stevens. And this, I should say, was a very narrowly decided case. It was 5 to 4 in favor of the school district. But Justice Stevens said today that the majority decision really kind of thwarted the purpose of Title IX, the federal education law, designed to pretty much eliminate discriminate in federal education programs, and he kind of accused the court of being more interested in protecting a school district’s purse than, as he put it, protecting the interests of immature high school students.

PHIL PONCE: Did the majority opinion acknowledge that this is, in fact, a problem that is not all that rare, that does occur with some frequency?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Oh, yes, it did. And Justice O’Connor said in her opinion that harassment, as she put it, unfortunately has become an all too common aspect of the educational experience. And this is not that unusual. And attorneys for the school district today said that they also believed the reasoning in this case could apply in other cases, for example, student on student sexual harassment. This reasoning could apply in those cases, where a student who is harassed by another student seeks to hold the school district liable.

PHIL PONCE: And how about application to other employment circumstances, does this kind of reasoning apply to cases on the job?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, it’s very difficult to read anything into today’s decision as to how it would affect workplace harassment, because today’s decision turned on a completely different law. This turned on the employment law. The court has two decisions left this term that will define the limits of harassment in the workplace, but those turn on Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act.

PHIL PONCE: And those two cases, what are they about, because they’re-a lot of people consider them sort of like completing the set, so to speak, on sexual harassment cases this term.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. Well, as today’s decision showed us, we now know when school districts will be liable for this kind of harassment. The two decisions left on harassment this term will kind of set the parameters for when employers are liable for harassment in the workplace. One of the cases comes to us from Florida. It involves a lifeguard who says that she was sexually harassed by a supervisor. And in that case the court will decide just when an employer is liable for a supervisor’s behavior that creates what’s called a hostile or abusive work environment. The other case comes from Chicago, and in that case the court will decide whether an employee can sue her employer for sexual harassment if she is threatened with a job demotion, because she doesn’t perform some kind of sexual favor, but then the threat is never carried out.

PHIL PONCE: Jan, thank you very much.