This case involves a high school student suing her school district for sexual harassment based upon the illicit actions of her teacher. The teacher, Frank Waldrup, began making suggestive comments to Alida Gebser when she was thirteen years old. Within a year, Mr. Waldrup instigated sexual relations with Ms. Gebser and continued this behavior until its discovery approximately 1 ½ years later. Ms. Gebser claimed that the school district was vicariously liable for Mr. Waldrup's behavior. The school district won summary judgment in the district and appellate courts, which led to Ms. Gebser's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
What is the proper standard of liability of a school district under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972,1 for a teacher's sexual harassment of a pupil?
In a split decision,2 the Supreme Court held that damage liability under Title IX does not extend to a school district unless an official "who at a minimum has authority to institute corrective measures on the district's behalf has actual notice of, and is deliberately indifferent to, the teacher's misconduct." The Court partially based its holding upon the virtual Congressional silence in the statute regarding student claims of sexual harassment.
Factual History As Presented to the Court:
In 1991, Ms. Gebser first met Mr. Waldrup through his wife, who, at the time, was Ms. Gebser's 8th grade teacher. Ms. Waldrup encouraged Ms. Gebser, one of her brightest students, to participate in a Great Books discussion group led by her husband at the local high school. In the fall, Ms. Gebser began high school with Mr. Waldrup as one of her instructors. Mr. Waldrup singled Ms. Gebser out for flattery and made numerous suggestive remarks to her in private and in front of other students. Ms. Gebser believed that this special attention resulted from the mentor/mentee relationship she shared with Mr. Waldrup. In the Spring of 1992, Mr. Waldrup visited Ms. Gebser at her home when her parents were away. He took advantage of the situation by kissing and fondling Ms. Gebser. Ms. Gebser was stunned, confused and terrified. She was unsure how to react to the situation. Soon after this incident, Mr. Waldrup began a sexual relationship with Ms. Gebser that included numerous acts of sexual intercourse.
Around this time, the school district had severely cut back the Gifted and Talented Program, in which Ms. Gebser participated. Mr. Waldrup offered to Ms. Gebser, with the school district's consent, one-on-one instruction in advanced course work. Oftentimes, these "classes" were mere fronts for Mr. Waldrup to continue his sexual relationship with Ms. Gebser. Ms. Gebser believed that if she were to report their relationship, then she would lose Mr. Waldrup as her instructor and her only opportunity for an honors education.
Mr. Waldrup's behavior was finally discovered in January, 1993 when police caught the two engaged in sexual activity.
Ms. Gebser filed suit against the school district in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, claiming that the school district violated her rights under Title IX. She based her claim upon two arguments:
2) The school district failed to effectuate 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.
2) Such employee had the power to end the abuse; and
3) Such employee failed to end the abuse.
The school district responded that the Court should uphold the actual notice standard expressed in the lower courts' holdings. According to their position, any other standard imputes liability upon a school district 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,"4 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 adopted the school district's arguments and established an actual notice standard of review for teacher-student sexual harassment cases where monetary damages are requested. The Court declined to address Mr. Waldrup's actions as those of an agent for the school district since, "Title IX contains no [reference] to an educational institution's Ďagents,' 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 vicarious liability analysis.
The Court rejected a constructive notice standard which, in its view, would violate the contractual framework of Title IX. According to the Court, Congress framed Title IX in terms that suggest the recipient of federal funds must have notice of potential noncompliance prior to enforcement and penalties. This actual notice standard in administrative proceedings, therefore, must transfer to individual claims as well.
Finally, the Court held that even if the school district failed to have any grievance procedure in place, such failure constitutes neither actual notice nor deliberate indifference. A violation of administrative requirements does not in and of itself create damage recovery in private actions.
The only hope now for easing this burdensome standard lies within Congress. According to the Court, "Until Congress speaks directly on the subject, [w]e will not hold a school district liable in damages under Title IX for a teacher's sexual harassment of a student absent actual notice and deliberate indifference."5
Although O'Connor has denied such implication, the Gebser decision removes vicarious liability of a school district for its teachers' behavior. 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.
Furthermore, the Court appears to have a complete disregard for the emotional and psychological characteristics of sexual harassment. The dynamics of harassment often involve an aggressor who holds a position of power over the victim, which is especially intensified in a student-teacher relationship. A student victim may rely upon the teacher as a model of right and wrong and doubt her own reaction to the situation. This Court, though, refuses to recognize the specialness of teacher-student sexual harassment, or else it would not have constructed a standard that places on the shoulders of children the duty to enforce the words of adults.
Amicus briefs for this case were submitted for the Petitioner (Ms. Gebser) by the National Women's Law Center,6 National Education Association, and United States government. Briefs for Respondent (Lago Vista School District) were submitted by the National School Boards Association,7 Kentucky School Boards Association, Texas Association of School Boards Legal Assistance Fund,8 and American Insurance Association.
1Title IX states (in part), "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."
2O'Connor delivered the Court's opinion in which Rehnquist, Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas joined. Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer dissented with Stevens and Ginsburg each filing opinions.
3Petitioner's Brief, page 12.
4Respondent's Brief, page 42.
5Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, __U.S.__ (1998).
6Joined by the American Association of University Women, California Women's Law Center, Center for Women Policy Studies, Clearinghouse 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.
7Joined by the New Jersey School Boards Association.
8Joined by the Texas Association of School Boards, Texas Association of School Administrators and Texas Council of Schools.