Seo-Yun was a 15-year-old public high school student who came to the United States from South Korea at the age of ten. By the time she reached high school, Seo-Yun was speaking English fluently and excelling academically. Seo-Yun even published her own first book of poetry, which contained poems in both English and Korean.
Nonetheless, high school bullies went after Seo-Yun because she was shy, deferential to her teachers and peers alike, and had a slight accent. The most vicious group was led by an 18 year-old sophomore named Todd, who unfortunately for Seo-Yun, sat right next to her in science class. Todd had been held back twice, and had been the victim of bullying himself. But nothing made Todd feel better than taking out fears, his anger, and his profound sense of inferiority over someone more vulnerable than he.
At first, Todd and his group of bullies mostly leveled cultural and racial slurs at Seo-Yun. But when they saw that she did not fight back, and the teachers chose to ignore the situation rather than intervene, things escalated.
Bullying Turns to Sexual Harassment
Todd began passing graphic and sexually explicit notes to Seo-Yun in science class whenever the teacher turned his back. Mortified and humiliated, Seo-Yun would just crumple up the notes and put them in her bookbag, hoping no one would seem them. But things got even worse. Todd began to reach under Seo-Yun’s desk and touch her thighs, telling her to watch out after school because he would be waiting for her, and couldn’t wait to have sex with her, whether she wanted to or not. One day, Seo-Yun just couldn’t take it anymore and let out a blood-curdling scream in the middle of science class. She was removed from class and served detention for disrupting the lesson.
Later that week, Seo-Yun had to make up the science quiz she missed when she was removed from class. Just as she began the quiz, Todd and his friends entered the room and surrounded her. A substitute teacher was administering the quiz and appeared petrified of Todd and just sat there watching Todd taunt Seo-Yun, whisper sexually explicit threats in her ear, and make sexually explicit jokes to the cackling laughter of his lackeys. After several excruciating minutes, the substitute teacher finally asked Todd and his friends to leave the room. Seo-Yun failed the quiz.
The Public High School Fails to Remedy the Harassment
When Seo-Yun’s grades began their steep decline, her parents continually tried to find out what was going on. While Seo-Yun initially refused to tell them, she eventually broke down and explained Todd’s harassment. Seo-Yun’s parents called the school, set up a parent-teacher conference with the science teacher. The science teacher said he had noticed that Todd had been bothering Seo-Yun, and that he had already spoken to Todd about it. The teacher assured Seo-Yun’s parents that nothing like that would happen again and that the principal had been informed about the situation. But Seo-Yun’s troubles continued after the parent-teacher conference. In fact, the teacher did not even move Todd away from Seo-Yun. And Todd did not change his ways. He just became a little more discreet by approaching Seo-Yun when no one was around, threatening her, and touching her inappropriately. Seo-Yun’s parents learned that the harassment persisted, and repeatedly called the principal, only to leave messages that were unreturned. Seo-Yun grew increasingly withdrawn, could not concentrate on her schoolwork, and began failing all of her classes. As it so happened, Seo-Yun was not Todd’s only victim. Later that year he pled guilty to sexually assaulting another classmate, and was expelled from the school. But by that time, Seo-Yun had suffered lasting damage.
The Standard for Successfully Suing an Educational Institution For Knowingly Failing to Remedy Student-on-Student Harassment
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 provides that subject to certain limited exceptions, no person in the United states shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity received Federal financial assistance. The United States Supreme Court has interpreted Title IX as providing a private right of action for damages for the failure to remedy student-on-student harassment – but only where the federal funding recipient acts with deliberate indifference, and the harassment is so severe that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit. In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court held that there is only liability for damages where the funding recipient has control over not only the harasser, but the context in which the known harassment occurs. Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629 (1999). Recently, the University of South Florida was sued for allegedly failing to remedy alleged student-on-student sexual assault. The U.S. District Court found that the student who brought the suit stated a claim under Title IX, without deciding the merits of the claim. If you or someone you know has been subjected to a hostile educational environment, or has a child who has been subjected to a hostile educational environment, we may be able to help.