On May 24, 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school districts can be held legally liable in cases of student-on-student sexual harassment, but only when the district was “deliberately indifferent to sexual harassment, of which they had actual knowledge, and that the harassment was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.”
LaShonda Davis, a fifth-grade student, had endured a prolonged pattern of sexual harassment from a classmate, G. F., at Hubbard Elementary School in Monroe County, Georgia. The harassment began in December 1992, when the boy attempted to touch LaShonda’s breasts and genital area. He also made vulgar comments to her, saying, “I want to get in bed with you” and “I want to feel your boobs.” The boy continued this behavior in January 1993, and LaShonda reported it to both her classroom teacher and her mother, Aurelia Davis. LaShonda’s mother contacted the school administration. Other than the reports being passed along to Principal Bill Querry, no further action was taken by the school.
The boy’s conduct allegedly continued for several months. In early February, G. F. purportedly placed a doorstop in his pants and proceeded to act in a sexually suggestive manner toward LaShonda during physical education class. LaShonda reported the incident to her physical education teacher, Whit Maples. Approximately one week later, G. F. again engaged in harassing behavior, this time while under the supervision of another classroom teacher, Joyce Pippin. Once more LaShonda allegedly reported the incident to the teacher, and again Aurelia Davis contacted the teacher to follow up.
According to Aurelia Davis, G. F. again harassed LaShonda during physical education class in early March; in turn, LaShonda reported the incident to both Maples and Pippen. In mid-April 1993, G. F. allegedly rubbed his body against LaShonda in the school hallway in what LaShonda considered a sexually suggestive manner, and LaShonda again reported the matter.
The string of incidents finally ended in mid-May, when G. F. was charged with, and pleaded guilty to, sexual battery for his repeated misconduct. LaShonda suffered emotionally during the months of harassment. She was unable to concentrate in class, and her formerly high grades fell dramatically. In April 1993, her father discovered that she had written a suicide note. LaShonda also expressed concern that G. F. would eventually sexually assault her.
During the litigation of the suit filed by the Davis family, it became obvious that LaShonda was not G. F.’s only victim: He was also harassing other girls in class. At one point, LaShonda and several other victims attempted to speak with Principal Querry about the abuse, but a teacher allegedly blocked them from doing so. Aurelia Davis claimed that, despite repeated conversations with teachers and the principal, no action was ever taken to end the abuse. At one point, Principal Querry even asked Aurelia why LaShonda was the only one complaining. No effort was made to separate G. F. and LaShonda, and it was only after she had been reporting harassment for more than three months that she was finally allowed to change her classroom seat so she was no longer sat next to G. F. Aurelia Davis also claimed that at the time of these incidents, the Monroe County School Board had not instructed personnel on how to respond to sexual harassment and had no specific policy on the issue.
The Court’s ruling was only a partial victory for victims of school-based sexual harassment. While the decision established that it is a school’s responsibility to respond when alerted that sexual harassment is occurring, it did not require schools to take preventive measures to keep such abuse from happening. Given that sexual harassment occurs with great frequency, it is imperative that schools go beyond what the Court required to ensure a safe educational climate for all. In a previous decision–1992’s Franklin v. Gwinett County Public Schools–the Supreme Court also held that a district receiving federal funding can be held liable for abuse involving a faculty member and a student.
- Davis, as next friend of LaShonda D. v. Monroe County Board of Education et al. Retrieved April 25, 2010, from http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=000&invol=97-843
- DeMitchell, T. (2000, April). Peer sexual harassment: More than teasing. International Journal of Educational Reform, 9(2), 180-185.
- Sexual harassment at school: Know your rights. (2010). Equal Rights Advocates.
- Retrieved from http://www.lawhelpmn.org/resource/sexual-harassment-at-school-know-your-rights
- Webb, D., Hunnicutt, K., & Metha, A. (1997). What schools can do to combat student-to-student sexual harassment. NASSP Bulletin, 81(585), 72-79.