The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to decide whether educators violate a federal law when they fail to stop students from sexually harassing other students.

The justices said they will review a federal appeals court ruling that barred a lawsuit against a Georgia school district and school officials over the harassment a girl received from a fellow fifth-grader.The court's decision, expected by July, could carry enormous importance for schools nationwide.

The court got a head start on its 1998-99 term, which officially begins Monday, by granting review to 12 cases that had arrived during its summer recess. In other matters, the court:

- Re-entered the controversy over the use of race in drawing election districts by agreeing to take a third look at a much-disputed North Carolina congressional district.

- Agreed to decide whether the NCAA can be sued under a federal law banning sexual discrimination by any program or activity receiving federal financial aid.

- Said it will use a California case to decide whether states can limit the amount of welfare payments paid to new residents.

- Agreed to decide in a Wyoming case how far police officers can go in searching the personal belongings of motor vehicle passengers.

The court's new look at sexual harassment comes just three months after the justices issued a decision in the case of a Texas teacher who seduced one of his students.

The June decision actually made it much harder for students who are sexually harassed by teachers to hold school districts financially responsible. But the 5-4 ruling said monetary damages could be available if an official who has authority to do something about the problem "has actual notice of or is deliberately indifferent to the teacher's misconduct.

In the Georgia case acted on Tuesday, a federal appeals court ruled that the same law, know as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, never applies to student-on-student harassment.

Clinton administration lawyers urged the Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court's "categorical exclusion" of such claims.