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Appeals Court Orders New Trial in Case Alleging Sexually Hostile Classroom

A federal appeals court has revived a lawsuit brought on behalf of a Pennsylvania high school student that alleged a high school history teacher created a sexually hostile environment in the classroom by, among other things, showing nude pictures of murder victims.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, ruled 2-1 to order a new trial in the civil lawsuit against Bruce H. Smith Jr., who was a 20th century history teacher at Pleasant Valley (Pa.) High School in 2007 when a female student identified in court papers as M. Young found many of his teaching methods offensive.

Court papers say Smith displayed photos of, among others, the nude body of Charles Manson murder victim Sharon Tate as part of a lesson about the "undercurrent of the hippies." Smith also allegedly said that women were not suitable to be U.S. president because they get their "monthly visitor"—or menstrual period.

The teacher also once compared the beauty typified by the "Gibson girl" of the early 20th century with Victoria's Secret models, discussing pushup bras and whether students thought one model's "breasts were firm enough," according to the student's trial testimony.

"It always came back to women," Young testified, according to court papers. "It was always degrading women." 

After Young's parents complained to the principal, Smith was suspended, but he was later reinstated and his teaching methods were monitored more closely. 

Young and her parents sued Smith over the allegedly sexually hostile environment in the classroom. The suit also named the principal, the superintendent, and the Pleasant Valley school district as defendants, claiming that Young faced retaliation for her complaint.

The case has a long and complex procedural history. A jury in a 2011 trial ruled against Smith and the school district and awarded some $325,000 in damages. But the trial judge tossed out the verdict and ordered a new trial.

In 2013, a new trial judge dismissed the suit's claim of sexually hostile environment against the teacher, and a jury ruled for the school district and administrators on the retaliation claims.

The family appealed those decisions to the 3rd Circuit court. In its Feb. 4 decision in Young v. Pleasant Valley School District, the appeals court panel issued a split decision.

The panel unanimously upheld the dismissal of the retaliation claims against the school district and administrators. 

"Here, the Youngs did not present sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable jury to conclude that the School District's alleged retaliatory acts were committed pursuant to an official policy or custom, as is required to establish Section 1983 municipal liability," the appeal court said.

However, the panel held 2-1 that Smith was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the Youngs' hostile educational environment claim.

"A reasonable jury could have found that Smith created a hostile educational environment," Judge D. Michael Fisher wrote for the majority. "Over the course of one semester, a classroom filled with 16- and 17-year-old students was regularly subjected to references to sex and graphic depictions of nudity and violence that degraded women."

"Such a classroom environment could make a reasonable female teenager feel uncomfortable, and it did in fact cause M. Young discomfort to the point of nausea according to her testimony," Fisher added. "Because the Youngs presented sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of fact for trial, we vacate the District Court's grant of summary judgment and remand for a new trial."

The dissenter, Judge Thomas M. Hardiman, said that "only an environment permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult will satisfy the onerous standard for a hostile environment."

"The majority concludes that Smith's classroom environment could make a female teenager 'feel uncomfortable' and could cause 'discomfort.' But that is not enough" under the proper legal standard to allow the claim to go to trial, Hardiman said.

(Hat Tip to How Appealing for this decision.)

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