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Can a school receiving U.S. funds be sued for sex harassment of pupil?
Girl’s mom says officials didn’t act to halt abuse

SHARE Can a school receiving U.S. funds be sued for sex harassment of pupil?
Girl’s mom says officials didn’t act to halt abuse

ATLANTA (AP) -- After six months of grabs and gropes from one of her male classmates, fifth-grader LaShonda Davis had had enough.

She came home from Hubbard Elementary School one spring day six years ago and told her mother she wanted a lawyer."I listened to her, and if she knew at 10 years old that she needed a lawyer, then she needed one," Aurelia Davis said. "I owed it to her. . . . I never wanted her to say that she went to everyone -- her teachers, her principal and her parents -- and they never did anything."

Aurelia Davis' suit against the Monroe County School Board for failing to stop a male pupil from sexually harassing her daughter has become a landmark case that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Tuesday.

At issue: whether schools receiving federal money can be sued under Title IX for failing to prevent students from sexually harassing other students. The suit does not yet specify damages.

Passed in 1972, Title IX prohibits schools that get federal funds from discriminating on the basis of gender. The Supreme Court has already held that schools can be held liable in cases of teachers harassing students.

"This case is going to impact just about any educational institution in the United States," said Julie Underwood, general counsel for the National School Board Association, which has filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the school system. "Talk about putting schools between a rock and a hard place. Sexual harassment is general society's problem and not something a federal monetary award is going to solve."

The Department of Education and the National Association of Educators, the nation's largest teacher union, have filed briefs on behalf of Aurelia Davis.

The National Women's Law Center, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy group, is representing Davis and LaShonda, now 16 and a junior at Mary Persons High School in Forsyth, just north of Macon.

Davis is handling all interviews for her daughter, trying to keep LaShonda's life "as normal as possible."

A decision for the school district would "give schools a green light to ignore sexual harassment, no matter how severe," said Marcia Greenberg, co-president of the law center.

The alleged abuse in this case took place over a period of six months. The Davis suit says a boy identified as "G.F." grabbed her breasts and crotch area, simulated having sex with her and threatened to have sex with her several times.

Aurelia Davis said she went to the teacher and the principal several times, but no action was taken and the children continued to sit next to each other in class.

A criminal complaint was filed, and the boy -- who has since moved to the Atlanta area -- pleaded guilty to sexual battery. His sentence was not available since he was a juvenile at the time.

The school board argues that because Title IX lacks sexual harassment provisions and because the Department of Education did not release its sexual harassment guidelines until 1996, the grade school could not have known it would be liable.

"Title IX does not expressly create a cause of action," for student-to-student sexual harassment, Macon lawyer Warren Plowden writes in the brief for the school board. "Neither should the statute be interpreted so as to imply such a cause of action."

The Davis brief, however, says the language in Title IX is similar to that in Title VII, which prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace. Title VII was the basis for an earlier Supreme Court decision that companies can be held liable for sexual harassment by co-workers.

Law center attorney Verna Williams also writes that since LaShonda's grades and mental state suffered -- Aurelia Davis discovered a suicide note during the ordeal -- she was denied access to federally funded programs and therefore discriminated against.

Even if her right to sue is denied, Aurelia Davis said she feels vindicated by taking the case this far.

"When it happened, it was like the boy got a Purple Heart and my daughter got ignored," Davis said. "I think she showed a lot of bravery, and it's the least I could do to continue the fight."