This week, the United States Supreme Court turned away appeals from two schools in cases surrounding Title IX, the federal civil rights legislation enacted in1972 that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or education program that receives federal funding.
On Monday, the court rejected an appeal from the Fairfax County School Board. In the case, the school board argued that it should not be held liable under Title IX for an alleged sexual assault of a student by another classmate on a school trip. The case will go to trial in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia.
According to the Associated Press, the case surrounded whether a school system can be held liable under Title IX for a single alleged assault when there had been no notice of a problem.
In 2018, “Jane Doe” filed a lawsuit alleging that a male classmate at Oakton High School sexually assaulted her on a school bus during a band trip the year prior.
In 2019, a civil jury found that Doe had been assaulted but acquitted the school system of wrongdoing as it had not received “actual notice” of the sexual assault.
In 2021, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the lawsuit. Reportedly, the majority opinion stated that it was clear that the school system did have notice of the sexual assault because Doe told administrators that her classmate had touched her without her consent.
“Judges in the majority said that if school systems can’t be held liable for their response to a single incident, it would amount to giving them ‘one free rape,’” AP noted.
The Fairfax County School Board sought review from SCOTUS; a request rejected this week.
“What a shame the School Board wasted taxpayer dollars asking the Supreme Court to adopt positions the Fourth Circuit and the Department of Justice have called ‘absurd,’” Alexandra Brodsky, one of Doe’s lawyers, said.
In a statement to AP, Fairfax County Public Schools said that the decision from SCOTUS “leaves these important legal questions unsettled. Fairfax County Public Schools asked the high court to resolve these uncertainties because Congress never intended for schools to be privately sued for money damages when everyone agrees the harassment could not have been foreseen.”
As the retrial goes forward, Doe will have to prove again that she was sexually assaulted and that Fairfax County Public Schools had been given notice. Reportedly, whether or not she was assaulted was debated at the initial trial (via AP):
Whether Doe was assaulted was disputed at the original trial. The school system argued she was ambivalent about her participation in the conduct and truly became upset only after learning the male student had a girlfriend.
Doe testified that she tried to block the male student’s hands from groping her while they huddled under a blanket and that she at one point pulled her hand away from his genitals only to have him grab it and put it back.
She acknowledged that she never told him “no” and didn’t try to get up and walk away. But she was adamant she didn’t consent.
“It’s pretty simple. I never said ‘yes’ to him doing any of that to me,” she testified.
The Washington Post noted that Doe argued that school officials violated her rights under Title IX and asked for a declaration that Fairfax had violated Title IX and for unspecified damages.
The Supreme Court also turned away a case involving the University of Toledo in Ohio. In 2018, a former undergraduate student at the university accused the school of failing to investigate her complaint about sexual advances reportedly made by a male professor.
According to Reuters, a federal judge ruled that the university was not liable because the alleged sexual harassment stopped before the school was notified. However, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio, revived the lawsuit this year, claiming that the school could be held liable under Title IX over its “deliberate indifference” to the female student’s complaint.