School districts take note: discrimination on the school bus is no different than discrimination in the classroom.
Last week, the Washington Supreme Court held just that in a case involving an Olympia bus driver’s sexual assault of children. In a unanimous decision, the Court said school districts may be liable if they don’t take responsibility for preventing discrimination by their employees in public places— discrimination that includes sexual harassment and assault on the school bus.
School buses have played a historic role in efforts aimed at desegregating schools and offering equal access to public education in Washington State. They've also provided critical access to public schools for children with learning disabilities. School buses should be safe for the students who depend on them.
Unfortunately, as many as 75 pre-k, kindergarten, and/or disabled elementary students in the Olympia district were repeatedly sexually abused and assaulted by a bus driver, who eventually pled guilty to child molestation.
The children have a range of identities and racial and ethnic backgrounds, but the simple truth is that the burden of sexual assault does not fall equally across all children. Studies have shown that girls of color, transgender students, and other individuals from marginalized populations are targeted and particularly vulnerable to abuse because of their multiple, intersecting identities.
So, Legal Voice filed an amicus asking the Court to find that the Olympia School District be liable under the Washington Law Against Discrimination, following the Court’s Floeting decision. Floeting held that employers are liable for their employee’s discriminatory conduct in a place of public accommodation regardless of whether they knew about the discrimination. (Legal Voice was involved in that case too, and the Court cited our amicus brief in the decision!)
We’re thrilled by the court’s ruling. Not only will it incentivize school districts to do all that they can to prevent sexual harassment and assault rather than take action only when it’s reported, but it will further the purpose of the Washington Law Against Discrimination to eradicate discrimination for these vulnerable students.
Many thanks to Legal Voice board member Tiffany Cartwright, of MacDonald Hoague & Bayless, who was our pro bono counsel on the case!