Court broadens school sex harassment cases

Jan. 21, 2009 at 3:50 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court said unanimously Wednesday parents could use 19th century civil rights law to sue public schools for child sexual harassment.

The ruling in the case out of Hyaniss, Mass., means parents can use an 1871 civil rights law in tandem or in place of 1972's Title IX of the Education Amendments, which bans school discrimination.

During the 2000-01 school year, the kindergarten-age daughter of Lisa and Robert Fitzgerald told her parents an 8-year-old boy was forcing her to lift her skirt and pull down her panties on the bus. But the boy denied the allegation and the school principal ruled it could not be corroborated. Local police also refused to act.

The parents began driving the girl to school, but the child said the incidents continued at school. The parents then filed suit in federal court alleging violations of the 1871 civil rights law and Title IX. The parents lost their Title IX claim in court, and the lower federal courts ruled the Title IX claim barred the civil rights claim.

But in the unanimous Supreme Court opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said, "In the absence of any contrary evidence, it follows that Congress intended Title IX to be interpreted similarly to allow for parallel and concurrent (civil rights) claims. At the least, this indicates that Congress did not affirmatively intend Title IX to preclude such claims."

(Fitzgerald vs. Barnstable School Committee, No. 07-1125)

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