Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education

Acting on the complaint of a young girl whose classmate made inappropriate sexual overtures, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999) that school boards could be held liable for such harassment under certain circumstances. Its ruling is based on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which states that “No person . . . shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” In so doing, the Court applied Title IX to student-on-student sexual harassment.

Before this ruling, lower courts had asserted that school boards could not be liable for student-on-student sexual harassment under Title IX because they or their employees did not harass the student. Other courts held that school boards could be liable for students harassing other students. The Supreme Court granted the appeal to resolve this conflict among the circuits.

Facts of the Case

Davis began when Aurelia Davis, the mother of LaShonda, a fifth grader, brought a claim under Title IX seeking injunctive relief and compensatory damages for the alleged continuous sexual harassment of her daughter by a classmate. The plaintiff contended that school officials knew of the harassment but failed to take any meaningful action to prevent it from continuing.

Over a six-month period, a fifth-grade student identified as G. F. harassed or abused LaShonda (and others) by attempting to fondle her, fondling her, and directing offensive language toward her, according to the complaint. An example of G. F.’s behavior occurred in December of 1992, when G. F. attempted to touch LaShonda’s breasts and vaginal area, telling her “I want to get in bed with you,” and “I want to feel your boobs.” In another example, G. F. placed a doorstop in his pants and behaved in a sexually suggestive manner toward LaShonda.

LaShonda reported G. F. to her teachers and her mother after all but one of the incidents. LaShonda’s mother called the teacher and the principal several times to see what could be done to protect her daughter. The requests for protection went unfulfilled. Even LaShonda’s request to change seats because G. F. sat next to her was not allowed until after LaShonda had complained for over three months regarding G. F.

The case started in a federal trial court in Georgia and went on to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, with both rejecting the notion of board liability for student-to-student sexual harassment, before making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A total of 20 judges ruled on this case between the time Davis filed her suit in 1994 and the time of the Supreme Court ruling five years later.

The Court’s Ruling

Justice O’Connor wrote the majority opinion for the Court. The question before the Court was “whether a district’s failure to respond to student-on-student harassment in its schools can support a private suit for money damages” (p. 639). In a 5-to-4 vote, the majority answered in the affirmative.

The Supreme Court held that school boards are liable when officials are deliberately indifferent to sexual harassment of which they have actual knowledge, and the harassment is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victim of access to the educational program or activity provided by the school. Moreover, the Court also required that the harassment be serious enough to have a systemic effect of denying the victim equal access to an education. According to the majority, a systemic effect means that it is unlikely that a single act of one-on-one peer sexual harassment would meet the requisite level of systemic effect.

Justice Kennedy’s dissent argued that an avalanche of litigation would follow the ruling. Even so, some legal commentators asserted that the avalanche of litigation would not occur because the standard was too high to provide meaningful protection for vulnerable students. Amid an ongoing stream of litigation with regard to student-to-student sexual harassment in schools, educators need to know both what kinds of behavior are unacceptable and that they have the power to protect students from actions that are harmful, even if they do not meet the test articulated in Davis.

Todd A. DeMitchell

See also Child Protection; Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools; Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District; Sexual Harassment, Peer-to-Peer; Sexual Harassment of Students by Teachers

Further Readings

  • DeMitchell, T. A. (2000). Peer sexual harassment: More than teasing. Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education. International Journal of Educational Reform, 9, 180–186. 
  • Morris, A. A. (1999). School board responsibility for student on student sexual harassment: Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education. Education Law Reporter, 137, 441–447. 

Legal Citations