The nation's school districts cannot be held responsible when teachers sexually harass or abuse students if administrators did not know about the misconduct, a deeply divided Supreme Court ruled Monday in interpreting a key anti-bias law.

The sweeping ruling, based on a 1972 law best known for bolstering women's sports, makes it far more difficult for harassed students to hold a wayward teacher's supervisors accountable and therefore collect more money in damages.By a 5-4 vote, the court killed a sexual-harassment lawsuit against a Texas public school district over a teacher's sexual relationship with a ninth-grade student.

"Damages may not be recovered . . . unless an official of the school district who at a minimum has authority to institute corrective measures on the district's behalf has actual notice of, and is deliberately indifferent to, the teacher's misconduct," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court.

Carol Lear, attorney for the Utah State Office of Education, told the Deseret News the ruling opens up the question of what constitutes knowledge: a single comment, parent call or several notification attempts.

"It makes some sense to me if administrators truly are unaware, but I think that is often not the case," said Lear. "I think they usually are informed."

O'Connor said the ruling does not affect any right a harassed student has to recover monetary damages from the guilty teacher or against a school district under some state law. But state-law lawsuits in such cases have proved virtually futile to date.

Utah has no express law against teachers harassing students, but state law does prohibit inappropriate sexual activities between students and those who are in a position of trust, Lear said. The Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission under the State Office of Education handles teacher certification issues but provides no guidelines for damages.

The Supreme Court also held out the possibility that a much-invoked federal civil rights law might be used to hold school districts accountable for such teacher misconduct.

"The number of reported cases involving sexual harassment of students in schools confirms that harassment unfortunately is an all too common aspect of the educational experience," O'Connor wrote. "No one questions that a student suffers extraordinary harm when subjected to sexual harassment and abuse by a teacher and that the teacher's conduct is reprehensible and undermines the basic purposes of the educational system."

But she said such misconduct cannot be attributable to a school district that did not know about it.

"Until Congress speaks directly on the subject . . . we will not hold a school district liable in damages under Title IX for a teacher's sexual harassment of a student absent actual notice and deliberate indifference," she said.

Lear could recall no case alleging sexually inappropriate conduct between a teacher and student that has been tried in Utah under Title IX. A recent lawsuit regarding a hazing incident at Skyview High School evoked Title IX, but that case applied to student-to-student conduct.

Because the decision focused exclusively on a school setting involving teachers and students, it does not apply to on-the-job sexual harassment.

But the justices are expected to have more to say on sexual harassment in employment in a pair of decisions to be announced before the court ends its 1997-98 term this week or next.

Frank Waldrop was 52 and a social studies teacher at a Lago Vista, Texas, high school when in 1993 police found him naked in the woods with a 15-year-old student, Alida Star Gebser.

According to a lawsuit Gebser and her mother later filed against the Lago Vista school district, the sexual relationship had lasted for about six months. Gebser, now a college student, apparently told no one about the relationship.

Waldrop was quickly fired and later stripped of his teaching certificate. He eventually pleaded no contest to a charge of attempted sexual assault.

A federal judge threw out Gebser's lawsuit against the school district, however, after noting a lack of evidence that any administrative official knew about the sexual relationship.

Parents or guardians of at least two other girls had complained that year about what they called inappropriate comments Waldrop made to their daughters. He met with the parents and said he had meant no offense. The school principal admonished Waldrop and considered the matter resolved, according to court documents.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld dismissal of the lawsuit, rejecting arguments that school districts should be held responsible whenever a teacher sexually harasses a student.

Monday, the Supreme Court agreed.

Joining O'Connor's majority opinion were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer dissented.

Writing for the four, Stevens said the decision "thwarts the purposes of Title IX."

The Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that sexually harassed students may collect monetary damages from their schools and school officials under a federal law known as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. But that decision did not state what standard should be used for imposing liability on a school district for the intentional acts of one of its teachers.

Title IX bars sex bias by "any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance" - making it applicable to the vast majority of public and private schools.

Lawyers for the Lago Vista school district told the justices it would be unfair to make employers legally responsible when they don't know. But the court also had been warned that letting unaware employers off the hook would reward "ostrich-like behavior."

Lawyers for Gebser argued that a school district should be held financially liable if it knows or should know about sexual harassment or if it has inadequate procedures to prevent, discover and eradicate sexual harassment.

Stevens' dissenting opinion accused the court of putting "protection of the school district's purse above the protection of immature high school students."