No Sexual Hostility in Unorthodox History Class

     (CN) – A high school history teacher did not sexually harass his student by showing his class gruesome photos connected to serial killer Charles Manson, a federal judge ruled.
     M. Young, as she is identified in court records, sued the Pleasant Valley School District and her former history teacher, Bruce Smith Jr., in 2007, claiming that, at age 16, she suffered retaliation after complaining that Smith showed photos of the Manson family and of women killed by grave robber Ed Gein. The women in the photos were “naked, mutilated, beheaded and defiled,” according to the ruling.
     The Brodheadsville, Pa.-based district ultimately suspended Smith without pay, and a jury awarded Young $325,000 in damages against the district and Smith.
     Chief U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane set the verdict aside in 2012, however, and ordered a new trial, holding that no reasonable jury could conclude that Smith created a sexually hostile classroom environment.
     Kane found that the jury inconsistently held the district liable but let Principal John Gress off the hook.
     Smith then moved for partial summary judgment as to the claim that he created a sexually hostile classroom environmentthat deprived Young of her equal protection rights in violation of Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act.
     The Williamsport court granted the motion earlier this month and explained why Tuesday.
     Young failed to sway the judge with had filed additional evidence including Smith’s use of pop icon Cyndi Lauper to discuss “female masturbation.”
     The discomfort M. Young felt about her body image as a result of Smith’s teachings “could be precisely the point in the context of what was admittedly a lesson raising the issue of whether American society has placed unrealistic, unnecessary, and unhealthy pressures on women historically and today,” U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann wrote. “Having created such discomfort does not constitute evidence of a sexually hostile environment just because the attempt at ‘consciousness raising’ did not succeed in moving students to the point where they, having recognized their shackles, shook off the chains.”
     No reasonable person in M. Young’s shoes could experience Smith’s speech as having created a sexually hostile classroom environment, the 61-page judgment states.
     “To hold that students may expect that much of what society values in education generally, and modern history education in particular, can be bought at a price less than students’ provocation or offense – would be to ignore the nature of democratic education in a pluralistic society, and would result in the replacement of decisionmaking by educators with decisionmaking of an inexpert court,” Brann wrote.
     Young likewise cannot show that Smith’s comments revealed his alleged desire to demean women and discuss sex.
     “At the very least, Smith’s expression falls within the ‘breathing room’ that must be allowed in the classroom in order not to stifle speech of value,” Brann wrote.
     Smith showed only one comment where Smith addressed her personally, where he asked Young if she wore only underwear in a pillow fight, but Brann found the remark “relatively innocuous,” noting that Young failed to address the context of the discussion.
     Her mother said Smith asked the question after showing the class an 1897 video of the great inventor Thomas Edison pillow-fighting with girls in nightgowns, but Smith said he had asked the class the question generally with the intent of encouraging students to rethink a stereotype.
     “There is no allegation that Smith was using this query as a segue to more explicit conversation,” Brann wrote. “The most M. Young can say of the comment is that Smith ‘did not say it sarcastically but rather to get me to tell him about whether I was in my underwear.’ But it is simply not that troubling to have to admit or deny (to the extent M. Young felt coerced) that a nonsexual activity such as pillow-fighting was performed in underwear.” (Parentheses in original.)
     Brann took more issue with comments Smith made “that disparage women’s intelligence and abilities,” according to the ruling.
     Young had noted, for example, that Smith had said women should not “be president because [they] get [their] monthly visitor each month.” He also allegedly mentioned how “women’s breasts … sag halfway down their chests as they age.”
     “But these comments were few and far between and could not have bothered M. Young terribly,” Brann wrote. “She was living proof of their falsity: a respected member of her church and one of the best students at Pleasant Valley, with a bright future ahead at one of our nation’s finest universities. It is regrettable that M. Young’s experience in Bruce Smith’s Twentieth Century History was neither as she anticipated or desired. Be that as it may, the court holds that no reasonable jury considering the totality of the circumstances could find that Mr. Smith sexually harassed her.”
     The retrial of Young’s remaining claims is scheduled to begin July 22.

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