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Justices Hear Arguments in School Harassment Case

December 2, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday for a case weighing an unusual test of sexual harassment laws whose outcome could have an impact on future gender, racial, and workplace discrimination cases. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal recaps the case.

GWEN IFILL: The justices today took up a case involving a 5-year-old girl who was sexually harassed on a school bus by an older student. Her parents sued the school district for violating their daughter’s constitutional right to equal protection.

For more on today’s arguments, we’re joined by NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

So this was a simple school bus, a trip to school every day, to Hyannis West Elementary School in Massachusetts. What happened?

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: That’s right. After a period of about six months in which the kindergartener was losing weight, losing sleep, and not wanting to go to school, she told her parents that, on the days she rode the bus and was wearing a dress, an older boy — later picked out as a third-grader, an 8-year-old — would make her pull her dress up, spread her legs, sometimes pull her panties down and spread her legs, and make fun of her, along with some of the other kids.

The parents immediately went to the principal with this complaint of sexual harassment. And the principal launched an investigation. So did the police. The police decided ultimately they could not bring criminal charges. The principal said there were no corroborating witnesses.

Parents fault school's response

GWEN IFILL: Isn't there a simpler way for something like this to have been resolved between the parents and the school other than ending up at the Supreme Court?

MARCIA COYLE: The parents had suggested putting the boy on another bus or putting an adult monitor on the bus. The principal had wanted to put their daughter on another bus.

The parents felt that was punishing the victim and the school system's response to their suggestions wasn't adequate, so they sued under two civil rights laws, Title IX of the education amendments, which bars sexual discrimination by public and private institutions that get federal funds, and also a very old civil rights statute, what we call Section 1983, that basically enforces the equal protection guarantee in the 14th Amendment.

Lower courts divided on Title IX

GWEN IFILL: So the court -- the reason why this ends up at the court is because lower courts are divided about whether this -- one court said Title IX, you cannot sue under Title IX, and therefore you can't use this other law either. And that's what they're disputing before the court.

MARCIA COYLE: Now, actually, the lower court here and courts around the country have split on what this lower court did. This lower court said, first of all, you didn't prove your Title IX claim. You have to show that the school district was deliberately indifferent to what you complained about, and we think that the school responded reasonably.

But where the real dispute arose is the same court said Title IX exists and precludes any constitutional claim under Section 1983. And that's the issue that was joined before the Supreme Court today.

Interpreting Title IX

GWEN IFILL: So as that argument was made at the court today, how did the justices listen in on this? Did they give any clues about what they thought was the more reasonable argument?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, not really. This is -- it was hard to discern where they were leaning. The issue for them is, how do you decide what Congress intended when it enacted Title IX back 30-some years ago?

The parents' lawyer, Charles Rothfeld, said you look at the language of the law, its history, and its purpose. Title IX was enacted to strengthen protections against sex discrimination. There's nothing in the language that says it precludes constitutional claims. It was modeled after another civil rights law, Title VI, which also co-exists with Section 1983 constitutional claims.

The lawyer for the school district argued, no, it does pre-empt constitutional claims, because Title IX is a comprehensive remedial statute, much like a few other laws -- for example, the law governing education of children with disabilities -- that the Supreme Court has held does pre-empt Section 1983 claims.

So the justices were skeptical of whether Title IX is that comprehensive. They also were concerned that maybe, if both claims exist, lawyers might try to circumvent the remedies under Title IX, which are more limited than Section 1983. It was a hard one to call.

Case has far-reaching impact

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like it's a hard one to call, but if you step back a bit, as all these constitutional tests of the Supreme Court demand, what difference does this make in the long run in how these kinds of laws are applied? Is there a larger impact of this kind of decision?

MARCIA COYLE: Absolutely, Gwen, because Title IX and Section 1983 are different. If the court finds that there are no Section 1983 sex discrimination claims in the educational context, that means that parents can't, for example, sue the superintendent, because Section 1983 applies to individuals. The Title IX doesn't.

GWEN IFILL: So Title IX only applies to public institutions, but not to individuals?

MARCIA COYLE: Public and private. Public and private.


MARCIA COYLE: Also, Title IX's remedies are more limited than Section 1983. You can have -- the institution's federal funds can be taken away if it violates Title IX. But under Section 1983, you could make the institution pay punitive damages.

So it has a real impact on how parents or other individuals want to pursue the kind of claim they have in federal court either under one statute, the other, or both.

But it also might have implications for other federal civil rights laws, for example, Title VI, which is a race discrimination statute, Title VII, the big workplace discrimination statute, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

They all have companion, co-existing Section 1983 claims, constitutional claims, so what the court says about Title IX may carry over there, and there may be less opportunity, fewer remedies for people who want to pursue these kinds of discrimination claims.

GWEN IFILL: So a lot of people are watching this outcome very closely.

MARCIA COYLE: Very closely.

GWEN IFILL: Marcia Coyle, thanks a lot.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.