(CN) – A federal law prohibiting discrimination in schools does not preclude students alleging sexual harassment from suing under a civil rights statute barring unconstitutional gender discrimination, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday.
The justices unanimously ruled to revive the case of a Massachusetts kindergartener who told her parents that an older boy had bullied her into lifting up her skirt on the school bus. She also claimed he had coerced her into pulling down her underpants and spreading her legs.
School officials said they were unable to corroborate the girl’s story with the bus driver, other students on the bus, or the boy himself, who denied the allegations. Local police also investigated, but concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to bring criminal charges against the boy.
The girl’s parents, Lisa and Robert Fitzgerald, claimed the school failed to transfer the boy to another bus or provide a bus monitor. Instead, school officials allegedly expected the girl to transfer buses or separate herself from the older students.
The Fitzgeralds sued the Barnstable School Committee under Title IX, which prohibits discrimination at schools that receive federal money. They also sued under a longstanding civil rights law known as Section 1983, which reinforces the Constitution’s equal-protection rights.
The Supreme Court overturned the 1st Circuit’s conclusion that Title IX precludes the Section 1983 claim.
Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito noted that Title IX’s protections, compared to Section 1983’s, “are narrower in some respects and broader in others.”
“Because the protections guaranteed by the two sources of law diverge in this way,” Alito added, “we cannot agree with the [1st Circuit] that ‘Congress saw Title IX as the sole means of vindicating the constitutional right to be free from gender discrimination perpetrated by educational institutions.’
“Accordingly, we hold that [Section] 1983 suits based on the Equal Protection Clause remain available to plaintiffs alleging unconstitutional gender discrimination in schools.”