Thursday, April 17, 2008

Horseplay or Sexual Harassment?

Under Title IX, schools must take reasonable steps to students from sexual harassment by other students. When applying this standard, courts are sometimes called upon to distinguish sexual harassment from other form of bullying, teasing, roughhousing, or horseplay that aren't motivated by the sex or gender characteristics of the victim. A federal district court in Illinois recently had to make this call with respect to a practice called "sac stabbing" (getting hit in the testicles) which was inflicted on the plaintiff, a 12-year-old boy, by his teammates and peers, on an ongoing basis and with the apparent knowledge of the coach and other authority figures. The abuse exacerbated an existing medical condition, causing the plaintiff to require surgery. Even that didn't stop the abuse -- post-surgical incidents of sac stabbing popped the plaintiff's stitches.

In denying the school's motion to dismiss, the court concluded that sac stabbing in this case was sexual harassment actionable under Title IX because the facts supported a conclusion that the school's failure to protect the plaintiff from ongoing abuse was rooted in gender stereotypes. According to the complaint,
the school allowed the abuse to continue based on the stereotypical perception that he was "not man enough" and that the school “essentially told [plaintiff] to toughen up and stop acting like a little girl,” to “stick up for himself.”

This decision underscores that there are a variety of ways peer harassment may contains the requisite sexual component to fall under Title IX's protection. Some focus on the abuser's motivation -- such as harassment or bullying motivated by sexual desire, the gender nonconformity of the victim, or the victim's sex directly -- while other's focus on the school's response. Regardless whether the underlying harassment is sexual harassment or asexual horseplay, a school must extend boys the same protection against harassment as it does girls; it cannot use stereotyped notions of masculinity to justify indifference to an ongoing problem.

Decision is: Doe v. Brimfield Grade School, 2008 WL 1722225 (C.D. Ill. Apr. 10, 2008)