Saturday, October 20, 2007

Ithaca Harassment Case Highlights Shortcoming in Title IX

In Ithaca, New York (my one-time home), community members are pressuring the Ithaca School District to reverse its controversial decision to challenge the jurisdiction of the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission by advancing legal arguments that, if successful, would render school districts immune from the jurisdiction of the state's human rights law.

Here is the background: When Amelia Kearney's twelve-year-old daughter, who is black, was racially harassed for a five-month period during the 2005-06 school year by white male students, Kearney complained to the ISD. Finding the board to be nonresponsive, she filed a complaint with the county human rights commission, the local agency that enforces the state human rights law, which protects students from discrimination on the basis of disabilities, sexual orientation, race, gender and religion.

In April of 2007, the commission scheduled a hearing to adjudicate whether the school district's response violated the human rights law. The school district responded by challenging the commission's jurisdiction. Specifically, ISD argues that the state human rights law is not applicable to schools, because the statute would require them to participate in public hearings and potentially reveal information that would violate students' privacy rights, which are protected under federal law. In August, a lower court ruled in favor of the commission. I have not read the decision, but I would have reached the same result by reasoning that it makes more sense to adjust the hearing requirement to protect students' privacy than to issue school districts a blanket exemption from the human rights law.

Last month, the ISD voted to appeal the decision to the state's appellate division, a decision that has provoked protest by members of the community.
A crowd of 90 descended upon the school board's meeting on Tuesday and Ithaca High School had to go into lockdown to quell student protests.

One argument against the ISD that has particular relevance here at the Title IX Blog came from Lambda Legal, a national gay rights advocacy group. Lambda contends that ISD's position would potentially curtail all protection for gay and lesbian students because the human rights law is the only applicable statute that enumerates protection on the basis of sexual orientation -- neither Title IX nor the state education law includes such protection.

Board member Seth Peacock (my former classmate, I'm proud to say) has moved to reconsider the decision to appeal, a decision that the board put off until its next meeting on October 23.

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