When it comes to learning about Supreme Court decisions–especially the ones that directly affect your livelihood and daily activities–the general press is not always the best source of enlightenment.
The recent majority ruling in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, for example, has ignited all the passions that burn deep in the souls of the media. With commentary that is often as shrill as the guests on the Jerry Springer Show, writers and talking heads have wrung just about every ounce of sensation out of this case. They have surfed the tidal waves of sensation, leaving common sense to wallow in the muddy backwaters.
When LaShonda Davis complained that she was being incessantly teased and molested by a male fifth grade classmate, her mother tried to get Monroe County school officials to intervene. According to the Court, their reaction was less than effective. Unsatisfied with the “boys will be boys” toleration of behavior that was making an emotional and academic mess of her daughter, the mother finally went to the police, who charged the boy with sexual battery (he pled guilty).
Angered that the school had so callously ignored her daughter’s plight, she also filed suit under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The lower courts dismissed the suit, but by a narrow 5-4 vote, the High Court agreed that school districts might have to face damage claims in extreme cases of persistent, ongoing sexual harassment where they have “actual knowledge” of the offending behavior and remain “deliberately indifferent” to violations of Title IX.
Critics of the decision, like George Will in Newsweek, have made dire predictions of a flood of lawsuits that will drain the coffers of school systems receiving federal funds. Their main point seems to be that there is no connection between the improper sexual advances of children and the sexual discrimination prohibition of Title IX. They are correct. They also conveniently misread Title IX, which provides, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be (1) excluded from participation in, (2) denied the benefits of, or (3) be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
The use of the conjunction “or” in this sentence means that the law prohibits exclusion or denial of benefits on the basis of sex, regardless of whether any form of discrimination is involved. The Court is saying that LaShonda was denied the benefits of and effectively excluded from the educational program because school officials knowingly allowed the harassment to continue.
In practice, the Supreme Court decision should not have a great impact because most schools don’t allow this egregious level of harassment to go on if they know about it. Some schools will probably overreact by imposing harsh “no touching, no teasing” restrictions on students, either because they get their legal advice from the media or because their school lawyers favor paranoia over common sense. But you don’t have to eliminate penmanship from the curriculum to stop boys from dipping girls’ pigtails in the inkwell.
The limits of physical and verbal interaction between boys and girls may be a gray area, but the decision in the Davis case makes it clear that no fine-line legal definition is required. The important part of the decision is the requirement that school officials be given actual notice. If a student or parent complains–and especially if there is more than one complaint–then it is time to get involved with some counseling, appropriate discipline, and behavioral education (of both students and parents).
And that brings us to one of the perils of the ever-expanding eSchool world. Notice can come from more than the telephone or in person. If your school is online and provides for eMail to the principal or teachers, a “suggestion box” or other type of bulletin board postings, or any kind of interactive forum, it should be monitored carefully for information about students with potential problems.
I’m not suggesting censorship or “big brother,” but I am strongly urging you not to create a source of information or an avenue of communication and then ignore it. It would be no different than setting up a “crises hotline” with an answering machine that is only checked once a week for messages.