Boys from the Court

Linda Purrington (
Tue, 12 Jan 1999 13:19:13 -0800

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Tuesday January 12 1:26 PM ET

U.S. Court Skeptical In School Harassment Case
By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A number of U.S. Supreme Court justices expressed
strong misgivings Tuesday about making schools across the country liable under
federal anti-discrimination law for students who sexually harass their

During arguments in one of the most important cases of the court's
1998-1999 term, some justices asked whether federal anti-discrimination
law was meant to make schools liable for damages for failing to stop sexual
harassment by students.

The case, which has implications for approximately 45 million students
in the United States, prompted several justices to question how to draw the
line between improper sexual harassment and innocent teasing.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said, ``little boys tease little girls,'' and asked,
``Is every one of those incidents going to lead to a lawsuit?''

Verna Williams, an attorney representing a fifth-grade girl in Georgia
who wants to hold school officials liable for ignoring a male classmate's
groping and sexual taunts, argued that simple teasing by first graders
can be distinguished from sexual harassment. She said the cases may go forward
if the conduct was offensive, severe and pervasive, and interfered with a
student's ability to get an education.

But Justice Anthony Kennedy said the result ``will be a federal code of
conduct for every classroom in the country.''

Both Kennedy and Justice Stephen Breyer expressed concern about applying
the standards governing sexual harassment of adults in the workplace to
younger students in the classroom.

Breyer said the problem of sexual harassment traditionally has been
dealt with by educators and counselors, through discussion and mediation, and by
calling in the families of the students involved. He expressed concern about
handing it over to lawyers and judges.

``I want to bring out in the open what I think is a problem,'' Breyer
said, later adding that it would ``open up a can of worms.''

O'Connor asked whether a school could be held liable for failing to stop
sexual harassment by a stranger or for ``a parent who frequently comes
to school and makes insulting comments.'' She raised the possibility that a
school could be held legally responsible only if the harassment was by one of
its employees and it knew about the activity but did nothing.

W. Warren Plowden, representing the Monroe County Board of Education in
Georgia, warned about ``opening up the courthouse door to all kinds of

He cited a survey that 75 percent of all high school girls and 66
percent of all boys report at least one instance of harassment. ``The potential
here for litigation is enormous,'' he said.

The Supreme Court's decision in the case is due by the end of June.

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