Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education Brief


Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (97—843)

526-US 629 (1999)

120 F.3d 1390, reversed and remanded

FACTS:  In this case, Plaintiff (P.) Davis, brought suit against the Defendant (D.) the Monroe County Board of Education seeking damages for the sexual harassment of her daughter, LaShonda by G.F., a fifth grade classmate.  LaShonda reported to her mother and teacher that G.F. made vulgar comments and tried to touch her genital area and her breasts on repeated occasions.  The school principal was made aware of the situation.  G.F. was not disciplined despite repeated complaints by LaShonda and others.  Finally, he was charged for the misconduct and plead guilty to sexual battery. 

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND:  The district court dismissed P.’s complaint (Title IX Claim) in its entirety for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. 

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a claim for compensatory and punitive damages against the school holding that Title IX does not provide schools adequate notice that they are liable for sexual harassment of one student by another.  In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in this case, the judgment of the district court was revised and the case is remanded for further proceedings (March 23, 2000).

ISSUE:  Can a school board be held liable for damages (compensatory and punitive) under Title IX for its failure to prevent sexual harassment among students (student to student harassment)?

ARGUMENTS BY THE PARTIES:

Plaintiffs:  The plaintiffs argued the defendants deliberate indifference to G.F.’s persistent sexual advances toward LaShonda created an intimidating, hostile, offensive and abusive school environment that violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits a student from being “excluded from participation in, being denied the benefits of or being subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Defendants:  They argued to dismiss the motion based on the Federal District Court ’s decision that found that “student-on-student” or peer harassment provides no ground for a Title IX private cause of action for damages.

HOLDING:  O’Connor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Kennedy, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Scalia and Thomas, JJ., joined.

OPINION:  The U.S Supreme Court agreed with the Eleventh Circuit’s conclusion that Title IX does not provide schools notice of liability concerning the actions of others.  However, a school’s “deliberate indifference” to “known acts of harassment” is itself misconduct prohibited by Title IX which can cause a private damage action by the plaintiff.  A school’s misconduct causes the plaintiff to be subject to discrimination when the school exercises “substantial control over the harasser” and the context in which the known harassment occurs” (i.e. “during school hours and on school grounds, etc.).  The misconduct must be “sexual harassment of students that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victim’s educational experience, that the student is effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”  Whether a school’s response to student-to-student actions rises to the level of misconduct prohibited by Title IX is to be judged by the total circumstances.  This conduct goes beyond “simple acts of teasing and name calling among school children,” and likely will require more than “one instance of peer-on-peer harassment.”

DISSENT:  (Kennedy)  Schools cannot be held liable for peer sexual harassment because Title IX does not give them clear and unambiguous notice that they are liable in damages for failure to remedy discrimination by their students.  As the majority acknowledges, Title IX prohibits only misconduct by grant recipients, not misconduct by third parties.

In any event, a plaintiff cannot establish a Title IX violation merely by showing that she has been “subjected to discrimination.”  Rather, a violation of Title IX occurs only if she is “subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity (a), where “program or activity” is defined as “all of the operations of” a grant recipient.

Perhaps the most grave, and surely the most lasting, disservice of today’s decision is that it ensures the Court’s own disregard for the federal balance soon will be imparted to our youngest citizens.  The Court clears the way for the federal government to claim center stage in America ’s classrooms.  Today’s decision mandates to teachers instructing and supervising their students the dubious assistance of federal court plaintiffs and their lawyers and makes the federal courts the final arbiters of school policy and of almost every disagreement between students.  Enforcement of the federal right recognized by the majority means that federal influence will permeate everything from curriculum decisions to day-to-day classroom logistics and interactions.  After today, Johnny will find that the routine problems of adolescence are to be resolved by invoking a federal right to demand assignment to a desk two rows away.

PERSONAL OPINION:  I found this case to be interesting from various angles – first as an educator and as an employee of the Illinois State Board of Education who also happens to serve on the Gender Equity Team which deals with Title IX.  I also spoke to a friend of mine who is a School Psychologist and got her opinion on “peer to peer/student to student harassment.”  She told me about several programs that teach students to avoid sexually harassing conduct and to identify and report harassment when it does occur.  Also, what are the psychological implications that students may suffer as a result of these situations?  Also, what about the First Amendment’s protection of free speech that could be implemented in schools to address Title IX concerns?  If the Monroe County Board of Education is liable – is the state also liable since it is their job to insure that Title IX policies are implemented?  Where does the BUCK STOP?  I hate to be ISBE Police – I don’t believe that’s my job. 

I also thought that Kennedy’s final thoughts in his dissent said a lot about our educational system today – “As its holding makes painfully clear, the majority’s watered-down version of the Spending Clause clear-statement rule is no substitute for the real protections of state and local autonomy that our constitutional system requires.  If there be any doubt of the futility of the Court’s attempt to hedge its holding about with words of limitation for future cases, the result in this case provides the answer.  The complaint of this fifth grader survives and the school will be compelled to answer in federal court.  We can be assured that like suits will follow–suits, which in cost and number, will impose serious financial burdens on local school districts, the taxpayers who support them, and the children they serve.  Federalism and our struggling school systems deserve better from this Court.  I dissent.”


        

Last updated on January 24, 2002