UC Santa Cruz Title IX/Sexual Harassment Office


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DAVIS VS MONROE COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT, May 1999, US Supreme Court

Petitioner filed suit against respondents, a county school board (Board) and school officials, seeking damages for the sexual harassment of her daughter LaShonda by G. F., a fifth-grade classmate at a public elementary school. Among other things, petitioner alleged that respondents' 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, in relevant part, prohibits a student from being "excluded from participation in, be[ing] denied the benefits of, or be[ing] subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance," 20 U. S. C.§1681(a). In granting respondents' motion to dismiss, the Federal District Court found that "student-on-student," or peer harassment provides no ground for a Title IX private cause of action for damages. The en banc Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

Held:

1. A private Title IX damages action may lie against a school board in cases of student-on-student harassment, but only where the funding recipient is deliberately indifferent to sexual harassment, of which the recipient has actual knowledge, and that
harassment is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.

(a) An implied private right of action for money damages exists under Title IX, Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, 503 U. S. 60, where funding recipients had adequate notice that they could be liable for the conduct at issue, Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman, 451 U. S. 1, 17, but a recipient is liable only for its own misconduct. Here, petitioner attempts to hold the Board liable for its own decision to remain idle in the face of known student-on-student harassment in its schools. The standard set out in Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School Dist., 524 U. S. 274 --that a school district may be liable for damages under Title IX where it is deliberately indifferent to known acts of teacher-student sexual harassment--also applies in cases of student-on-student harassment. Initially, in Gebser, this Court expressly rejected the use of agency principles to impute liability to the district for the acts of its teachers. Additionally, Title IX's regulatory scheme has long provided funding recipients with notice that they may be liable for their failure to respond to non-agents' discriminatory acts. The common law has also put schools on notice that they may be held responsible under state law for failing to protect students from third parties' tortious acts. Of course, the harasser's identity is not irrelevant. Deliberate indifference makes sense as a direct liability theory only where the recipient has the authority to take remedial action, and Title IX's language itself narrowly circumscribes the circumstances giving rise to damages liability under the statute. If a recipient does not engage in harassment directly, it may not be liable for damages unless its deliberate indifference "subject[s]" its students to harassment, i.e., at a minimum, causes students to undergo harassment or makes them liable or vulnerable to it. Moreover, because the harassment must occur "under" "the operations of" a recipient, 20 U. S. C. §§1681(a), 1687, the harassment must take place in a context subject to the school district's control. These factors combine to limit a recipient's damages liability to circumstances wherein the recipient exercises substantial control over both the harasser and the context in which the known harassment occurs. Where, as here, the misconduct occurs during school hours on school grounds, misconduct is taking place "under" an "operation" of the recipient. In these circumstances, the recipient retains substantial control over the context in which the harassment occurs. More importantly, in this setting, the Board exercises significant control over the harasser, for it has disciplinary authority over its students. At the time of the events here, a publication for school attorneys and administrators indicated that
student-on-student harassment could trigger Title IX liability, and subsequent Department of Education policy guidelines provide that such harassment falls within Title IX's scope. Contrary to contentions of respondents and the dissent, school administrators will continue to enjoy the flexibility they require in making disciplinary decisions so long as funding recipients are deemed "deliberately indifferent" to acts of student-on-student harassment only where the recipient's response to the harassment or lack thereof is clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.

(b) The requirement that recipients receive adequate notice of Title IX's proscriptions also bears on the proper definition of "discrimination" in a private damages action. Title IX proscribes sexual harassment with sufficient clarity to satisfy Pennhurst's notice requirement and serve as a basis for a damages action. See Gebser, supra, at 281. Having previously held that such harassment is "discrimination" in the school context under Title IX, this Court is constrained to conclude that student-on-student sexual harassment, if sufficiently severe, can likewise rise to the level of "discrimination" actionable under the statute. The statute's other prohibitions help to give content to "discrimination" in this context. The statute not only protects students from discrimination but also shields them from being "excluded from participation in" or "denied the benefits of" a recipient's "education program or activity" on the basis of gender. 20 U. S. C. §1681(a). It is not necessary to show an overt, physical deprivation of access to school resources to make out a damages claim for sexual harassment under Title IX, but a plaintiff must show harassment that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims' educational experience, that the victims are effectively denied equal access to an institution's resources and opportunities. Cf. Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U. S. 57, 67 . Whether gender-oriented conduct is harassment depends on a constellation of surrounding circumstances, expectations, and relationships, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U. S. 75, 82, including, but not limited to, the harasser's and victim's ages and the number of persons involved. Courts must also bear in mind that schoolchildren may regularly interact in ways that would be unacceptable among adults. Moreover, that the discrimination must occur "under any education program or activity" suggests that the behavior must be serious enough to have the systemic effect of denying the victim equal access to an education program or activity. A single instance of severe one-on-one peer harassment could, in theory, be said to have such a systemic effect, but it is unlikely that Congress would have thought so. The fact that it was a teacher who engaged in harassment in Franklin and Gebser is relevant. Peer harassment is less likely to satisfy the requirements that the misconduct breach Title IX's guarantee of equal access to educational benefits and have a systemic effect on a program or activity.

2. Applying this standard to the facts at issue, the Eleventh Circuit erred in dismissing petitioner's complaint. This Court cannot say beyond doubt that she can prove no set of facts that would entitle her to relief. She alleges that LaShonda was the victim of repeated acts of harassment by G. F. over a 5-month period, and allegations support the conclusion that his misconduct was severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive. Moreover, the complaint alleges that multiple victims of G. F.'s misconduct sought an audience with the school principal and that the harassment had a concrete, negative effect on LaShonda's ability to receive an education. The complaint also suggests that petitioner may be able to show both actual knowledge and deliberate indifference on the part of the Board, which made no effort either to investigate or to put an end to the harassment.

120 F. 3d 1390, reversed and remanded.


Petitioner's minor daughter, LaShonda, was allegedly the victim of a prolonged pattern of sexual harassment by one of her fifth-grade classmates at Hubbard Elementary School, a public school in Monroe County, Georgia. According to petitioner's complaint, the harassment began in December 1992, when the classmate, G. F., attempted to touch LaShonda's breasts and genital area and made vulgar statements such as " `I want to get in bed with you' " and " `I want to feel your boobs.' " Similar conduct allegedly occurred on or about January 4 and January 20, 1993. LaShonda reported each of these incidents to her mother and to her classroom teacher, Diane Fort. Petitioner, in turn, also contacted Fort, who allegedly assured petitioner that the school principal, Bill Querry, had been informed of the incidents. Petitioner contends that, notwithstanding these reports, no disciplinary action was taken against G. F.

G. F.'s conduct allegedly continued for many months. In early February, G. F. purportedly placed a doorstop in his pants and proceeded to act in a sexually suggestive manner toward LaShonda during physical education class. LaShonda reported G. F.'s behavior to her physical education teacher, Whit Maples. Approximately one week later, G. F. again allegedly engaged in harassing behavior, this time while under the supervision of another classroom teacher, Joyce Pippin. Again, LaShonda allegedly reported the incident to the teacher, and again petitioner contacted the teacher to follow up.

Petitioner alleges that G. F. once more directed sexually harassing conduct toward LaShonda in physical education class in early March, and that LaShonda reported the incident to both Maples and Pippen. In mid-April 1993, G. F. allegedly rubbed his body against LaShonda in the school hallway in what LaShonda considered a sexually suggestive manner, and LaShonda again reported the matter to Fort.

The string of incidents finally ended in mid-May, when G. F. was charged with, and pleaded guilty to, sexual battery for his misconduct. The complaint alleges that LaShonda had suffered during the months of harassment, however; specifically, her previously high grades allegedly dropped as she became unable to concentrate on her studies, and, in April 1993, her father discovered that she had written a suicide note. The complaint further alleges that, at one point, LaShonda told petitioner that she " `didn't know how much longer she could keep [G. F.] off her.'"

Nor was LaShonda G. F.'s only victim; it is alleged that other girls in the class fell prey to G. F.'s conduct. At one point, in fact, a group composed of LaShonda and other female students tried to speak with Principal Querry about G. F.'s behavior. According to the complaint, however, a teacher denied the students' request with the statement, " `If [Querry] wants you, he'll call you.' "

Petitioner alleges that no disciplinary action was taken in response to G. F.'s behavior toward LaShonda. In addition to her conversations with Fort and Pippen, petitioner alleges that she spoke with Principal Querry in mid-May 1993. When petitioner inquired as to what action the school intended to take against G. F., Querry simply stated, " `I guess I'll have to threaten him a little bit harder.' " Yet, petitioner alleges, at no point during the many months of his reported misconduct was G. F. disciplined for harassment. Indeed, Querry allegedly asked petitioner why LaShonda " `was the only one complaining.' "

Nor, according to the complaint, was any effort made to separate G. F. and LaShonda. On the contrary, notwithstanding LaShonda's frequent complaints, only after more than three months of reported harassment was she even permitted to change her classroom seat so that she was no longer seated next to G. F. Moreover, petitioner alleges that, at the time of the events in question, the Monroe County Board of Education (Board) had not instructed its personnel on how to respond to peer sexual harassment and had not established a policy on the issue.


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Contact Rita Walker , Title IX Officer: 105 Kerr Hall . email: rew@ucsc.edu . phone 831.459.2462 * 831.459.4825