Twain's fiction has long been a reliable source of controversy in public
schools. When a local high school required that its students read The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, however, the result was a lawsuit alleging
hostile environment racial discrimination.
The required readings for a freshman English class at McClintock High
School included--besides Twain's novel--"A Rose for Emily,"
a short story by William Faulkner. Both works contained repeated use of
what were alleged to be "profane, insulting and racially derogatory"
In her lawsuit against the school district, Kathy Montiero--the mother
of an African-American student at McClintock--claimed that her daughter
had suffered "psychological injuries and lost educational opportunities
due to the required reading of the literary works."
According to Ms. Montiero, school officials merely offered to allow her
daughter to study alone in the library while the works were being discussed
in class, and she claimed that the school should have acted more diligently
to prevent "racial harassment by other students" supposedly
resulting from discussions of the required readings.
The school's conduct, it was alleged, violated both the Equal Protection
clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution and Title VI
of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Protection clause prohibits
a state from denying "to any person within its jurisdiction the equal
protection of the laws."
Under Title VI, moreover, "[n]o person in the United States shall,
on the ground of race, color, or national origin . . . be subjected to
discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial
assistance." The Tempe Union High School District, like many educational
institutions, is a recipient of Federal funds.
In Montiero v. Tempe Union High School District, the US Court of Appeals
for the Ninth Circuit rejected the claim that the school district was
civilly liable for having required that its students read Twain and Faulkner.
The court discounted "the notion that putting books on trial in our
courts is the proper way to determine the appropriateness of their use
in the classroom.
judgments are ordinarily best left to school boards and educational officials
charged with educating young people and determining which education materials
are appropriate for which students, and under what circumstances."
Ms. Montiero offered evidence to the court that, following discussions
of the assigned readings, her daughter had been the victim of racial slurs
by white classmates, and that insults had been scrawled about the school
walls. The court, however, was skeptical of "charges that reading
books causes evil conduct. It is all too easy to allege cause-and-effect
when one event follows another."
That the court doubted the effect of these books on the white students
who had harassed Ms. Montiero's daughter, however, did not absolve the
school district of any potential liability.
Under Title VI, the court announced, a school district might be liable
for a hostile racial educational environment caused by the harassing conduct
of its students.
The court followed reasoning previously developed by the US Department
of Education in that agency's conclusion that Title VI does indeed prohibit
student-to-student racial harassment.
Under this rationale, a school district violates Title VI when there is
a racially hostile environment, the district had notice of the problem,
and it failed to respond adequately to redress the racially hostile environment.
The court quoted with approval the Department's holding that "an
alleged harasser need not be an agent or employee of the recipient [of
Federal funds] because this theory of liability under Title VI is premised
on a recipient's general duty to provide a nondiscriminatory educational
From these statements, the court concluded that "[r]acial harassment
creates a hostile environment if it is sufficiently severe that it would
interfere with the educational program of a reasonable person of the same
age and race as the victim."
The court ultimately returned Ms. Montiero's lawsuit to the trial court
to resolve her hostile environment claim against the school district.
"It does not take an educational psychologist," it observed,
"to conclude that being referred to by one's peers by the most noxious
racial epithet in the contemporary American lexicon, being shamed and
humiliated on the basis of one's race, and having the school authorities
ignore or reject one's complaints would adversely affect a Black child's
ability to obtain the same benefit from schooling as her white counterparts."
While Montiero concerns the actions of a school district, the court's
analysis is instructive for any educational institution that receives
federal funds. Typically, such a school will be subject to Title VI, which
was the basis for the Ninth Circuit's ruling.
in the Winter 1999 Edition of In Brief