The Supreme Court: Dealing with Sexual Harassment

Dealing with Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment makes the headlines almost daily as cases of abuse of children are reported in many communities. The most devastating reports in 2003 were those related to abuse by Catholic priests over many years and hidden by the church. Churches are not the only place an adult in authority can use that authority to sexually harass a child. Schools are another likely location and it does happen. Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District is one example that made it to the Supreme Court in 1998.

In 1991, Alida Gebser was first introduced to Frank Waldrop by his wife, who at the time was Gebser's eighth grade teacher. Her eighth grade teacher encouraged Gebser to participate in a Great Books discussion group led by her husband when she went to school at Lago Vista High School in Texas the next year.

Waldrop did end up being one of Gebser's teachers. Waldrop began making suggestive comments to Gebser when she was 13 years old. In the spring of 1992, Waldrop visited Gebser at her home when her parents were away. While there he started kissing and fondling her, which was the beginning of an approximately one and a half year relationship that included numerous acts of sexual intercourse. Waldrop's behavior was finally discovered in January 1993 when police caught the two engaged in sexual activity.

Court Connotations

Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 is the landmark legislation that bans sex discrimination in schools, whether it be in academics or athletics. Title IX states: “No person in the U.S. shall, on the basis of sex be excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal aid.”

Gebser sued the school district in the United States district court for the western district of Texas claiming the school district violated her rights under Title IX. There were two parts to her claim:

  1. Since Waldrop was employed by the school district, he acted as its agent, so the district was liable for his actions; and,
  2. The school district failed to have an adequate sexual harassment policy that educates both students and faculty on the definition of sexual harassment and the reporting procedures in place to confront it.

The district court awarded summary judgment to the school without even letting the case go to trial. Gebser appealed the decision to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court, which affirmed the lower court's ruling. The circuit court found that in order for the district to be held liable there would have to be proof that another school employee knew about the improper relationship, someone who had the supervisory power to do something about it and didn't stop it.

Just the Facts

Friend of the Court briefs were submitted on Gebser's behalf by the National Women's Law Center (joined by American Association of University Women, California Women's Law Center, Center for Women Policy Studies, Clearing-house on Women's Issues, Connecticut Women's Education and Legal Fund, Inc., Equal Rights Advocates, National Association for Girls and Women in Sport, National Coalition for Sex Equity in Education, National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund, Southern Coalition for Educational Equity, Wider Opportunities for Women, Women Employed, Women's Law Project, Women's Legal Defense Fund and Y.W.C.A.), National Education Association, and United States government. Briefs for the school district were submitted by the National School Boards Association, Kentucky School Boards Association, Texas Association of School Boards Legal Assistance Fund, and American Insurance Association.

Gebser then appealed her case to United States Supreme Court. The case was titled, Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District. She challenged the standard established by the 5th Circuit because she said a school district should be liable if it received constructive notice (if the school district knew or should have known of the behavior) of the harassment and failed to have “effective complaint and investigative procedures.” She also claimed that students, as a result of the teacher-student relationship, do not separate the authority wielded by teachers from the authority held by the school district. Hence, the school district is indirectly responsible for its teacher's behavior.

The school district disagreed and asked the Supreme Court to uphold the lower courts' holdings, saying the school district should not have liability for acts that occurred beyond its knowledge. Furthermore, the school district opposed expanding the definition of an agent to include all teachers. It argued that, in essence, a school district would be liable “in virtually every case in which a teacher harasses, seduces or sexually abuses a student,” thereby creating an unduly burdensome strict liability standard. The school district also expressed that such expansion would inhibit healthy student-teacher relationships for fear of future repercussions.

The Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts' rulings on a split 5 to 4 vote. The majority opinion was written by Justice O'Connor and joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas. Justice Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion signed by Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer. Justice Ginsburg also filed a dissenting opinion signed by Souter and Breyer.

The majority established an actual notice standard of review for teacher-student sexual harassment cases where monetary damages are requested. The Court declined to address Waldrop's actions as those of an agent for the school district since, “Title IX contains no [reference] to an educational institution's 'agents,' and so does not expressly call for application of agency principles.” The Court held that it would “frustrate the purposes” of Title IX to permit an award of damages where the school district itself was never notified of the misconduct. In fact, the Court did not find the teacher's knowledge of his wrongful behavior to be relevant to this liability analysis. Justice O'Connor wrote in the opinion released June 22, 1998:

  • “Title IX contains important clues that this was Congress' intent. Title IX's express means of enforcement requires actual notice to officials of the funding recipient and an opportunity for voluntary compliance before administrative enforcement proceedings can commence. The presumable purpose is to avoid diverting education funding from beneficial uses where a recipient who is unaware of discrimination in its programs is willing to institute prompt corrective measures. Allowing recovery of damages based on principles of … constructive notice in cases of teacher-student sexual harassment would be at odds with that basic objective, as liability would attach even though the district had no actual knowledge of the teacher's conduct and no opportunity to take action to end the harassment …. Lago Vista's alleged failure to comply with federal regulations requiring it to promulgate and publicize an effective policy and grievance procedure for sexual harassment claims does not establish the requisite actual notice and deliberate indifference, and the failure to promulgate a grievance procedure does not itself constitute discrimination in violation of Title IX.”
Supreme Sayings

“The Court has created a veritable 'smoking gun' requirement for harassment suits, forcing the victim to prove that the school district knew of the teacher's actions and consciously ignored them. This places a heavy burden upon the victim, especially when faced with a district who may have been sympathetic to the student's concerns, yet refused action upon them.”

—From the website of the National Organization for Women

Justice Stevens wrote in his dissent:

  • “During her freshman and sophomore years of high school, petitioner Alida Star Gebser was repeatedly subjected to sexual abuse by her teacher, Frank Waldrop, whom she had met in the eighth grade when she joined his high school book discussion group. Waldrop's conduct was surely intentional and it occurred during, and as a part of, a curriculum activity in which he wielded authority over Gebser that had been delegated to him by respondent. Moreover, it is undisputed that the activity was subsidized, in part, with federal moneys.
  • “The Court nevertheless holds that the law does not provide a damages remedy for the Title IX violation alleged in this case because no official of the school district with 'authority to institute corrective measures on the district's behalf' had actual notice of Waldrop's misconduct …. That holding is at odds with settled principles of agency law, under which the district is responsible for Waldrop's misconduct because 'he was aided in accomplishing the tort by the existence of the agency relation.' … This case presents a paradigmatic example of a tort that was made possible, that was effected, and that was repeated over a prolonged period because of the powerful influence that Waldrop had over Gebser by reason of the authority that his employer, the school district, had delegated to him. As a secondary school teacher, Waldrop exercised even greater authority and control over his students than employers and supervisors exercise over their employees. His gross misuse of that authority allowed him to abuse his young student's trust.”

The case definitely threw it back in the laps of parents to be certain their children were not being abused in the schools.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.