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Schools, liability, and sexual harassment

Historic lawsuit highlights taunts, tragedy, and districts' predicament.

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Two hours before she would be stabbed to death during sixth period, a lawsuit contends, Ortralla Mosley complained to teachers at Reagan High School that her ex-boyfriend was becoming increasingly violent with her and that she was worried about her safety.

That suit, filed in Austin last week, says school officials knew of Marcus McTear's violence with girls but were "deliberately indifferent." Now Ortralla's mother, Carolyn, is suing the Austin Independent School District for wrongful death under Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sexual discrimination in public schools. She seeks $23 million in damages.

It is the first Title IX case involving death and one of the largest in monetary demands. But even more important, experts say, it's a tragic reminder of sexual harassment as a persistent problem in hallways, on athletic fields, and in classrooms.

Most know Title IX as the law protecting gender equity in sports, but in two separate cases in 1998 and 1999, the US Supreme Court clarified that school districts could be sued under Title IX for sexual discrimination on campus, including student-to-student abuse. Since then, school officials have had to rethink harassment policies and implement new ones. They've made classroom environments more welcoming and made sure students, as well as teachers, are aware of the issue.

But experts say that while the high court's clarification put school districts on notice that they could be sued for such abuse, such cases can be extremely hard to win - and most suits of this nature have failed. In fact, many suggest the legal clarification on Title IX was made more to shield school districts than to protect students.

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