By Kelly Smith
A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision may be a sign of things to come in Ontario
The Supreme Court of the United States sent a wakeup call in May to educators and the
public about the need for publicly-funded schools to deal with student-on-student sexual
The case involves a young female student known as LaShonda D. and one of her
fifth-grade classmates, G.F., in a public school in Monroe County, Georgia. Over a period
of about one year, G.F. attempted to touch LaShondas breasts and genital area, made
vulgar, sexually-explicit statements to her, and rubbed his body up against her in the
school hallway in a sexually suggestive manner. LaShonda reported each of the incidents to
her mother, several of her teachers and the school principal.
The persistent, harassing behavior of G.F. had a predictably haunting effect on
LaShonda. Her previously high grades dropped as she became unable to concentrate on her
studies, her father discovered towards the end of the harassment period that she had
written a suicide note, and in fact the young girl confided in others that she didnt
know how much longer she could keep the young man "off of her".
Despite the reported misconduct, no disciplinary action was taken against the male
classmate. No effort was made to separate the young boy from LaShonda. Moreover, during
the period in question, the Monroe County Board of Education had neither established a
clear policy on the problem of peer sexual harassment, nor advised its teachers and
principals on how to grapple with this issue. Clearly, the school board, the principal and
the teachers of this young girl were indifferent to the harassment she suffered.
When LaShondas mother finally complained to the county sheriff, the boy was
charged and ultimately pleaded guilty to sexual battery.
LIABLE FOR DAMAGES
The U.S. Supreme Court concluded that in accordance with a federal anti-bias
law known as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 where schools receive
public funding, the school board can be held liable for damages in cases of
Writing for the majority of the United States Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day
OConnor stipulated that the board must be "
deliberately indifferent to
sexual harassment, of which they have actual knowledge, that is 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."
School boards, however, will not likely be held liable where there is a complete
absence of actual knowledge or notice to the board personnel, or where the board responds
in a fashion that is clearly not unreasonable. Indeed, where disciplinary measures are
taken by school administrators, courts are specifically warned to be wary of second
guessing these decisions. Anticipating the arguments of the absurd, Justice OConnor
took pains to explain that, "
in the school setting, students often engage in
insults, banter, teasing, shoving, pushing, and gender-specific conduct that is upsetting
to the students subjected to it. Damages are not available for simple acts of teasing and
name-calling among school children, however, even where these comments
target differences in gender. Rather, in the context of student-on-student harassment,
damages are available only where the behavior is so severe, pervasive, and objectively
offensive that it denies its victims the equal access to education that Title IX is
designed to protect."
The day following the release of this decision, the Vancouver Sun carried news that
British Columbia teachers will have a province-wide guide in September 1999 to help them
deal with elementary school students who sexually harass or victimize their fellow
classmates. "We want to make sure our school employees have an idea of how to respond
to a range of sexual behaviours from normal to problem behaviours," said Diane
Pollard, co-ordinator of the ministrys special programs branch. The initiative is
not the result of a specific incident or an increase in reported occurrences, Pollard
said. "Rather, its an attempt to be pro-active and recognize that children
sometimes respond to stress with inappropriate behavior."
However, Ontario school boards have been required since 1994, under the Ministry of
Educations Violence-Free Schools Policy, to have policies that contribute to safe,
welcoming, violence-free school environments. Sexual, as well as physical, verbal or
psychological abuse, bullying and discrimination are unacceptable.
But could the United States experience repeat itself in Canada? Should Ontario be
anticipating similar law suits? You bet.
With the increasingly litigious nature of Canadian society, it does not require much of
a leap to imagine school boards in Ontario in the same predicament as Monroe County.
Granted, we dont have identical legislation in Ontario.
But we do have the Human Rights Code and the Education Act, both of which combine to
give the same net effect as the American law. The Ontario Human Rights Code requires that
one show discrimination with respect to services. Public education is a service provided
by the school board.
When an action is brought for student-on-student sexual harassment, the school board
can also be named as a party. The Human Rights Code specifically provides that a school
board can be named in an action against the acts committed by individuals who are within
their control. The Education Act details the duties and obligations of teachers and
principals to maintain proper order and discipline in the classroom, school building and
on the school grounds.
Whats more, the Supreme Court of Canada has recently endorsed the position that
"it is not sufficient for a school board to take a passive role. A school board has a
duty to maintain a positive school environment for all persons served by it and it must be
ever vigilant of anything that might interfere with this duty."  S.C.J. No. 40
It would not be difficult to cobble together an argument showing Canadian school boards
should be held liable for the harassing conduct of students against other students.
Indeed, a recent article by Chantal Richard in the Dalhousie Law Journal, predicts,
"In Canada, human rights cases addressing employer liability for co-worker sexual
harassment can provide strong arguments in favour of school liability for
student-to-student sexual harassment. The analogy between student-to-student sexual
harassment and co-worker sexual harassment is appropriate because school administrators
exert at least as much control over students as employers do over all of their
In her article, "Surviving Student-to-Student Sexual Harassment: Legal Remedies
and Prevention Program-mes," Richard went on to say, "Arguably, schools have
more influence over their students because they have the statutory authority to discipline
them and monitor their mandatory attendance until they reach the age of 16 years."
Anticipating the likely falling in step with American jurisprudence, what should we be
doing about it? Litigious societies rarely benefit in the long run from a proliferation of
suits that reach into every aspect of an individuals life. Surely the better
approach is a proactive and preventive one, recognizing destructive behavior in its
infancy, and correcting it in the earliest stages.
But policies and guidelines alone are not enough. Laws dont stop criminal
behavior; they enable us as a society to sanction the offending conduct once it has been
committed. Similarly, protocols and policies alone will not stop harassment.
Its hardly surprising that children who are abused or neglected at home are
likely to repeat the cycle outside of the home. How can children who are hungry or
otherwise deprived of basic human needs legitimately be expected to behave with charity or
tolerance of others?
Our children are inundated with an unprecedented culture of violence in every facet of
the media. Is it any wonder that a basic lack of respect for the dignity of fellow human
beings seems so pervasive? Cuts to public education and the resulting loss of
extracurricular programs lead to boredom and uninspired minds, both of which provide
fertile ground for destructive, offensive behavior.
Surely our efforts should not be wasted scrambling to avoid potential lawsuits. We
should be focusing our energies on cultivating a new generation of children who embody
such compassion and tolerance from infancy that lawsuits will become an archaic vestige of
an unenlightened past.
The Ministry of Educations Violence-Free Schools Policy can be found at http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/policy/vfreeng.html
Kelly Smith, who works as a prosecutor in east-end Toronto, has been an Assistant
Crown Attorney with the Ministry of the Attorney General for the past decade.