In its 1979 Cannon decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found an implied private cause of action for students to sue federally-assisted educational institutions for sex discrimination under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In subsequent years, this Title IX remedy was expanded to include recognition of claims by students for sexual harassment. In a new decision, the Supreme Court concluded that Title IX is not the exclusive remedy for such student harassment claims against public schools.
The plaintiff in Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Comm. was a kindergarten student whose parents alleged that she had been bullied and harassed by a boy on the school bus. In addition to their Title IX claim against the school district, the Fitzgeralds sued under §1983, a Reconstruction-era civil rights statute that prohibits state and local governments from violating an individual’s federal rights. The district sought dismissal of the §1983 claim on the grounds that Title IX provides an exclusive remedy for sexual harassment actions by students.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court rejected this position. The Court concluded that Title IX did not establish a remedial scheme that is comprehensive enough to indicate Congressional intent to make it the exclusive remedy for harassment claims. The private remedy under Title IX is implied through Cannon, and the statute itself does not contain a specific mechanism for individuals to seek redress for harassment. Given this lack of specificity, plaintiffs may also sue the district under §1983.
Public educational institutions subject to Title IX should be aware of this additional legal remedy available to students and families who believe that the school has discriminated against or harassed the student based upon gender.