Barnstable parents win harassment suit appeal at nation's highest court today

Supreme Court Backs Broad Reading of Title IX in Barnstable case
Student Sexual Harassment Suits Allowed by US Supreme Court

"We conclude that Title IX was not meant to be an exclusive mechanismfor addressing gender discrimination in schools, or as a substitute forSection 1983 suits as a means of enforcing constitutional rights,"
    - Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruledunanimously today that Title IX does not bar victims of sexdiscrimination in schools from pursuing claims under an older federalcivil rights law.  The decision in Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee (Case No. 07-1125) is a victory for parents of a Barnstable student whoas a kindergarten student was subject to sexual harassment by an older studenton her town school bus. The student said a third-grade boy onher school bus repeatedly made her lift her dress, pull down herunderwear and spread her legs.

The  unanimous decision Wednesdaymeans that students who are sexually harassed may sue under a federal statutecovering schools and a broader civil rights law.

Lisa and Robert Fitzgerald can now pursue claims under the federal statute known asSection 1983, a Reconstruction-era law that allows plaintiffs to sueany individual who violates their civil rights under color of law. Insome cases, the statute may offer wider protections than Title IX ofthe Education Amendments of 1972, which bars sex discrimination infederally funded education programs.

2009-us_supreme_court_320
Supreme Court Justices: (back row from left) Stephen Breyer, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito, (front row from left) Anthony Kennedy, John Paul Stevens, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., Antonin Scalia, David Souter.

This reverses the decision by US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, whichfound that parents could not sue for discrimination against theirdaughter by another student under Section 1983 and that Title IXprovided the only remedy.

"We conclude that Title IX was not meant to be an exclusivemechanism for addressing gender discrimination in schools, or as asubstitute for Section 1983 suits as a means of enforcingconstitutional rights," Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the court's unanimous decisiontoday.

Judge Alito added, "Congress modeledTitle IX after Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and passedTitle IX with the explicit understanding that it would be interpretedas Title VI was. At the time of Title IX’s enactment in 1972, Title VIwas routinely interpreted to allow for parallel and concurrent § 1983claims, and we presume Congress was aware of this when it passed TitleIX.

"In the absence of any contrary evidence, it follows that Congressintended Title IX to be interpreted similarly to allow for parallel andconcurrent § 1983 claims," the judge wrote. "At the least, this indicates that Congressdid not affirmatively intend Title IX to preclude such claims."

Section 1983 allows for lawsuits against individual officials

USA Today reported there can be practical benefits to suing under both laws because of their varying standards for liability and different remedies. Section 1983, for example, allows for lawsuits against individual officials and teachers, not only government entities as is the situation under Title IX.

In the Fitzgeralds' case, which the newspaper reported will return to a lower court for a hearing, the parents contend the school district discriminated in how it investigated their daughter's claim against the boy.

Legal and women's groups, such as the American Bar Association and National Women's Law Center, had urged the court to rule that both laws can be grounds for lawsuits concerning student sexual harassment.

The National School Boards Association, siding with the Barnstable School district, had countered that allowing Section 1983 lawsuits would not reduce student misconduct and would be a costly distraction for educators.A lower-court judge described the reported ordeal of a girl allegedly harassed on the school bus as "one of a parent's worst nightmares."

The district court judge who heard the Fitzgerald case said the harassment "far exceeded mere teasing" and was "significantly shocking and traumatic." Yet, the judge found that the school district had not acted with "deliberate indifference."

The National Association of Women Lawyers, however, says the case "goes directly to the ability of girls and women to press for equal education ... and freedom from harassment in the schools."

Yet the National School Boards Association says providing greater avenues for bias claims - as sought by women's groups - "will not make ... addressing student misconduct any easier."

A little case history

In 2001, USA Today reported, Lisa and Robert Fitzgerald learned from their kindergarten daughter that a third-grade boy on the school bus in Hyannis had been making her lift her dress, pull down her underwear and spread her legs.

The Fitzgeralds got in touch with the Hyannis West Elementary School principal and were told the matter would be investigated. The Barnstable Police Department interviewed both children and found there were insufficient grounds to proceed with criminal charges, according to a U.S. district court's opinion.

The principal suggested that the Fitzgeralds place their daughter to a different bus or leaving rows of empty seats between the kindergarteners and older students on the bus.

Dissatisfied with those proposals, the parents began driving their daughter to school to avoid further bullying. She continued to report unsettling incidents at school, however, and had an unusual number of absences during the school year.

The parents sued the school district, claiming violations of Title IX, the Equal Protection Clause, as enforced by §1983, and state laws.

Both the U.S. District Court and the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the §1983 claim was preempted by Title IX.

The Supreme Court late last year heard oral arguments in Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee, and now has reversed the lower courts.

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