CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart reports the ruling is careful to tiptoe around the roughhousing and teasing considered normal behavior by young children.
In writing the majority opinion, Justice O'Connor said the school must be, "deliberately indifferent to sexual harassment" and the harassment must be "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school."
But that wasn't enough for Justice Anthony Kennedy who dissented saying, "We can be assured that like suits will follow, suits which...will impose serious financial burdens on schools."
The family of LaShonda Davis brought the case in question while she was a fifth grader at a Forsyth, Ga. school. LaShonda's mother said a classmate repeatedly groped her daughter and the school ignored their complaints. "The first day she got home from school, she said, `Guess what Mama, he did it again today,'" said Aurelia Davis, LaShonda's mother. "And I said, `Did you tell the teacher?' and she said, `Yes, ma'am'."
School board officials warned today that drawing the line between children's playground taunts and illegal harassment in other cases won't be easy to distinguish. "We don't have a clear definition of sexual harassment from the Supreme Court or really any other court," said Julie Underwood of the National School Boards Association.
There's another problem this decision doesn't address: Just how high up the chain do you have to complain? Is it enough to tell the teacher, or does a student have to go all the way to the Board of Education? A case asking that very question is already on its way to Washington.
When the Georgia case was argued before the court in January, however, several justices voiced concern about drawing the line between illegal harassment and children's playground taunts.
"Little boys tease little girls," Justice O'Connor had said at the time, "Is every one of these incidents going to lead to a lawsuit?"
In Monday's ruling for the court took pains to "limit a recipient's damages liabilities to circumstances wherein the recipient exercises substantial control over both the harasser and the context in which the known harassment occurs."
Aurelia Davis sued the Monroe County school board and two officials over a five-month "barrage of sexual harassment and abuse" LaShonda allegedly endured from a fellow fifth-grader at Hubbard Elementary School in the 1992-93 school year. The boy, identified in court papers as G.F., allegedly touched LaShonda's breasts, rubbed against her suggestively and repeatedly told her he wanted to have sex with her.
The lawsuit stated that LaShonda, now a high school junior, and her moher reported each incident to school officials but that G.F. was never disciplined. The boy pleaded guilty to sexual battery after Davis complained to the county sheriff.
The lawsuit against the school board said the harassment caused LaShonda's grades to fall and had a debilitating effect on her mental and emotional well being.
The Supreme Court first ruled in 1992 that sexually harassed students may collect monetary damages from their schools and school officials under Title IX, and last June articulated the appropriate legal standing for determining when such legal liability exists. Monday's decision extended that liability.