Schools face blame over pupil assault;Briefing;International

5th February 1999 at 00:00
United States

Jon Marcus reports on a case involving harassment by a classmate that could go all the way to the Supreme Court

In a case that is likely to set a national precedent, the United States Supreme Court is considering whether taunts and certain crude remarks between children constitute sexual harassment - and whether schools can be held responsible for it.

The case was brought by the family of a girl, who was teased and groped by a boy in her class at their elementary school in the southern state of Georgia five years ago. Both were then 11.

The family argues that a 1972 federal law bans sexual discrimination in any educational institution that receives money from the federal government.

Lawyers for the girl's mother say state schools should be accountable if teachers or administrators know about, but fail to address, harassment. The girl complained repeatedly that the boy had grabbed her breasts and crotch, simulated a sex act and made threatening remarks over a period of five months, yet the school declined even a request to move him from the seat beside her. When her mother finally went to the police, the boy pleaded guilty to sexual battery.

Verna Williams, the family's attorney, said the school should be accountable for having disregarded the harassment allegations. "If it knows about it, a school must take reasonable steps to address and remedy it."

School lawyers counter that the federal sexual discrimination law was not intended to hold schools accountable for cases of harassment between one student and another. Several lower courts have reached the same conclusion, but the Supreme Court surprised observers by agreeing to consider an appeal. A ruling is expected in the summer.

However, some of the justices, who traditionally question the parties appearing before them, sounded sceptical. "I'm sure children nationwide tease each other. Little boys tease little girls," said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. "Is every one of these incidents going to lead to a lawsuit?" Several of the justices said teachers, principals and child psychologists were better equipped to handle such disputes than courts and lawyers. "I don't think the latter group of people is the right one," Justice Stephen Breyer said.

But there are hints that the high court may be leaning towards a hard line in such incidents. In a similar case involving a Texas teacher last year, the justices ruled that a school can be held responsible for having "actual notice of, or (being) deliberately indifferent" to harassment.

The Clinton administration, women's rights groups and teachers' unions have weighed in on the side of the student and her family, while the National School Boards Association urged the justices to find against her.

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