A $250,000 sexual harassment award to a former Tonganoxie student is sure to get the attention of school districts throughout the area.
Dylan Theno, now 18, filed a lawsuit against the Tonganoxie school district 15 months ago, claiming that officials didn't do enough to stop verbal abuse against him by other students. The suit claimed that the district failed to protect Theno's right to protection from sexual harassment under Title IX of the federal education act. Although Title IX usually is applied to cases of overt gender discrimination in sports, the jury decided that Theno had been denied access to an education because of Title IX violations.
After years of being called names and being the subject of rumors that he was a homosexual, Theno, who is not homosexual, left school during his junior year and later earned a GED.
Theno and his parents said that, after the harassment started in seventh grade, they made many reports and had many discussions with school officials about incidents that occurred in the halls, in classes and at sporting events. Whatever school officials did about the complaints, the U.S. District Court jury decided it wasn't enough.
This decision has to be setting off alarms with school district officials throughout the area. It's not that they haven't been concerned about bullying, name-calling and other hurtful things children do to one another, but the decision that school districts can be held liable under Title IX for verbal harassment among students, even outside the classroom, is significant.
One initial reaction may be to ask how schools can possibly control such incidents. If parents don't instill a sense of values and proper conduct that would prevent students from being so cruel, can schools be expected to solve the problem? In many cases, school efforts to monitor and prevent harassment may actually make students more determined to stalk their prey. That apparently was the case with Theno, who urged his parents not to report every incident of harassment for fear their reports would make the situation worse.
Courts probably don't expect schools to be able to totally eradicate harassing incidents, but they do expect schools to make a concerted effort to deal with cases as severe as Theno's apparently was. What that entails is unclear. No amount of hall monitoring, class discipline or anti-bullying instruction would seem to guarantee an end to harassment. Will schools simply be required to remove a harassed youngster from the student population in order to stop the abuse?
These are all issues that probably will be receiving increased attention by school officials in coming weeks. Everyone wants students to be treated with respect and not be subjected to taunting or abuse that makes their school experience emotionally unpleasant or unbearable. Schools should do everything they can to provide that kind of positive atmosphere. It won't always be easy, but, as the Tonganoxie case reminded us last week, it's part of the schools' legal responsibility to their students.