The Supreme Court announced Friday it will decide this term if public schools and colleges can be held liable for sexual misconduct by a teacher with a student.
A ruling on the issue, due by next summer, could expose the nation’s educational institutions to a costly series of lawsuits.
Over the past two decades, plaintiff lawyers have tried, without much success, to win large damage awards for students who succumbed to sexual advances by teachers. They argued the students’ constitutional rights were violated by negligent public officials.
This theory of liability based on the Constitution did not win the Supreme Court’s endorsement. Five years ago, however, the high court pointed to a more direct route that largely had been ignored.
Congress in 1972 had added Title IX to the federal civil rights code, a provision best known for having boosted women’s sports in high school and college. It says simply that no person in a school or college that receives federal funds “shall be subjected to discrimination … on the basis of sex.”
Most lawyers thought this meant only that educational institutions must give equal opportunities to girls and boys.
But in 1992, the high court ruled that students who are victims of sexual abuse on campus can sue the school system for damages under Title IX.
This decision, in Christine Franklin vs. Gwinnett County Public Schools, opened the courthouse door to big lawsuits not just against individual teachers, but against entire school districts and colleges.
However, justices did not clarify under what circumstances the institution could be found liable.
Now, that issue will be resolved in the case of Jane Doe vs. Lago Vista Independent School District, 96-1866.
Frank Waldrop, a retired U.S. Marine colonel who taught high school in a rural Texas district, gave special attention to a bright 15-year old known only as Jane Doe. He invited her to join his “Great Books” class as a freshman. Soon after, he began a sexual relationship with her that lasted for several months, until they were caught together by a police officer.
Waldrop was fired from his job and was prosecuted by authorities. He pleaded guilty and received a 10-year suspended prison sentence.
The girl and her mother then filed a lawsuit against the school district, arguing it should have to pay for having a teacher “sexually exploit” a young student.