Posts tagged with "connecticut"

Is Warrantless Drug Testing in Our Schools Constitutional?

In a previous post, I discussed the lessened requirements of searches conducted by school officials, that of reasonableness under all of the circumstances surrounding the search. This is because the Supreme Court has recognized the need to balance a student’s privacy interests against the need for teachers and administration to maintain order and control over the classroom environment.[1] This framework works particularly well in the traditional sense of searching a student’s belongings, automobile, and even their school desks and lockers.[2]

What happens, however, if your school seeks to subject its students to random drug testing, without having reasonable suspicion to do so? This qualifies as a search, subject to the reasonableness standard, but “certain exceptions to the reasonable standard [exist], whereby your child may be subject to drug testing regardless of whether or not they are suspected of taking illicit drugs.”[3]

In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that random drug testing of student-athletes via urinalysis did not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment.[4] The Court articulated a three-part balancing test that must be used in determining whether a constitutional violation occurs in this context: the nature of the privacy interest upon which the search intrudes,[5] the character of intrusion,[6] and the nature and immediacy of the governmental concern and the efficacy of the means to meet it.[7] A school’s interest in combating student drug use has long been recognized. The Court reasoned that student-athletes have a further diminished expectation of privacy compared to regular students (consider communal showers and shared locker rooms) and noted the voluntary nature of participation.

Seven years later, the U.S. Supreme Court extended these principles to allow random drug testing of students who participate in any extracurricular school activities.[8] This includes chess clubs, band and choral ensembles, or even teams that participate in academic competitions. As my colleagues explained, “The circumstances surrounding a urinalysis test are no different than going to the restroom in a public facility, and a monitor is present only to make sure that your child does not tamper with the urine specimen,” a process that has been constitutionally upheld.[9]

So as a parent, what’s the take-away from this discussion? When your child wishes to participate in an extracurricular activity and the school intends to implement a suspicionless drug testing program, they may do so, but are required to adhere to the principles of Vernonia and Earls. In addition, it is comforting that the Court in Earls specifically articulated that access to the results is on a strict “need to know” basis;[10] in addition, schools are not permitted to either punish your child or hand over the results to the police.

Of course, the balancing test applied to drug testing renders a subjective analysis, and as such it is important to seek the advice of an experienced school law practitioner if your child is subject to one at his or her school.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

Should you have any questions regarding school discipline, searches, or any other education law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 341 (1985).

[2] Connecticut General Statutes § 54-33n.

[3] “Advocating on Your Child’s Behalf: A Parent’s Guide to Connecticut School Law,” by Joseph C. Maya, Esq., at 60.

[4] Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995).

[5] Id. at 654.

[6] Id. 658.

[7] Id. 660.

[8] Board of Education Independent School District No. 92 v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822 (2002).

[9] Id. at 833.

[10] Id.

Searches by School Resource Officers

On Searches by School Resource Officers: Are They School Officials or Police Officers?

It Depends.

In light of school safety concerns that have plagued the nation since the 1990s, resource officers have become commonplace our public schools. They are the collaborative effort of local police department and boards of education, serving a myriad of roles as educator, investigator, advisor, and a source of interaction and resource for students. However, what are the constitutional burdens imposed on a resource officer when he or she conducts a search of a student or the student’s property?

First, let’s rewind to 1985, when the U.S. Supreme Court held that while the Fourth Amendment in general applies to searches conducted by teachers or school officials, they are not held to the stringent warrant requirements that constrain police action. As further elaborated:

[T]he accommodation of the privacy interests of schoolchildren with the substantial need of teacher and administrators for freedom to maintain order in the schools does not require strict adherence to the requirement that searches be based on probable cause to believe that the subject of the search has violated or is violating the law. Rather, the legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search. Determining the reasonableness of any search involves a twofold inquiry: first, one must consider whether the … action was justified at its inception, second, one must determine whether the search as actually conducted was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.[1]

In other words, school personnel are permitted to search student property (which includes purses, backpacks, and automobiles on school property) so long as the search is “justified at its inception” and permissible in scope. The search cannot be excessively intrusive. However, what the Court in T.L.O. declined to produce was “the appropriate standard for assessing the legality of searches conducted by school officials in conjunction with or at the behest of law enforcement agencies, and we express no opinion on that question.”[2]

Thus, we return to our original inquiry: because a resource officer serves functions both on behalf of the school and of the local police agency, what is the standard that applies? It does not appear that this question has been put to the test here in Connecticut, though other jurisdictions have progressively contemplated this scenario, and it boils down to three hypotheticals:

  1. School official initiates search/police involvement is minimal: reasonableness test applies.
  2. School resource officer initiates search on own initiative or at direction of a school official so as to “further educationally related goals”: reasonableness test applies.
  3. “Outside” police officer initiates search: warrant and probable cause requirements implicated.[3]

In determining the level of police involvement, various factors are considered:

[W]hether the officer was in uniform, whether the officer has an office on the school campus, how much time the officer is at the school each day, whether the officer is employed by the school system or an independent law enforcement agency, what the officer’s duties are at the school, who initiated the investigation, who conducted the search, whether other school officials were involved, and the officer’s purpose in conducting the search.[4]

Because of the lack of a uniform standard as promulgated by a Supreme Court decision, different courts have come to wholly divergent conclusions purely based on application of the above factors. In Alaniz, the North Dakota Supreme Court determined that the school resource officer involved was “more like a school official,” thus implicating the less stringent reasonableness standard.[5] Conversely, this past August the Washington Supreme Court ruled that “the school resource officer was not a school official and thus the more lenient standard of ‘reasonable suspicion’ applied to searches by school personnel did not apply.”[6]

Every instance of school searches conducted by resource officers is unique, and as such determining whether it was reasonable or implicated greater Fourth Amendment protections may be difficult without the assistance of an experienced school law practitioner.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

Should you have any questions regarding school discipline, searches, or any other education law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 341 (1985).

[2] Id. at 342 n.7.

[3] State v. Alaniz, 2012 N.D. 76, ¶ 10. See, e.g., T.S. v. State, 863 N.E.2d 362, 367-68 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007); Myers v. State, 839 N.E.2d 1154, 1160 (Ind. 2005); State v. Burdette, 225 P.3d 736, 750 (Kan. Ct. App. 2010); In re D.L.D., 694 S.E.2d 395, 400 (N.C. Ct. App. 2010); State v. J.M., 255 P.3d 828, 832 (Wash. Ct. App. 2011). Accessed October 4, 2012: http://www.ndcourts.gov/_court/opinions/20110259.htm

[4] Id. at ¶ 11. See T.S., at 369-71; Burdette, at 740; R.D.S. v. State, 245 S.W.3d 356, 368 (Tenn. 2008).

[5] Id. at ¶ 12.

[6] “Court Invalidates Backpack Search by School Resource Officer,” by Mark Walsh. Accessed October 4, 2012: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/school_law/2012/08/court_invalidates_backpack_sea.html

Suspension Rates of Minority Students in Connecticut Schools Remains Stagnant

Suspension Rates of Minority Students in Connecticut Schools Remains Stagnant, Despite Overall Decrease

An article released yesterday on The CT Mirror reported mixed news: while the overall rate of out-of-school suspensions decreased by nearly one-fifth during the 2010-2011 academic school year, “it has not diminished Connecticut’s racial disparity in the use of the discipline technique.”[1] Indeed, the rates at which African American and Hispanic students are suspended, compared to their white peers, are staggering: twice for the latter and thrice for the former. What makes these numbers worse, however, is their disproportionate character. African American students comprise of 13% of the total student population, yet received 39% of all suspensions. Likewise for Latinos, who make up 19% of the state’s student population, they received nearly the same proportion of suspensions (36%).[2]

Unfortunately, these figures provided by the State Department of Education are not anomalies. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA recently released a study focusing on the disparate impact of suspensions and expulsions as it related to various ethnic and racial groups, gender, and disability. One key finding (out of many) was the following:

National suspension rates show that 17%, or 1 out of every 6 Black school-children enrolled in K-12, were suspended at least once. That is much higher than the 1 in 13 (8%) risk for Native Americans; 1 in 14 (7%) for Latinos; 1 in 20 (5%) for Whites; or the 1 in 50 (2%) for Asian Americans.[3]

Connecticut was ranked the highest in suspension rates for Latinos at 14% – twice the national average – with the Hartford School District at a whopping 44.2% suspension rate (the highest district in this category nationwide).[4]

So what is the cause of such wide-ranging disparity, both here in Connecticut and nationally? Unfortunately, the answers are difficult to pinpoint. “Is it a matter of discrimination? Or is it a matter of behavior issues among certain populations? Either way, you still have a problem that needs to be dealt with,” stated Joe Cirasuolo, who is the executive director of the State’s superintendents association.[5]

However, the impact is less opaque: “Overreliance on out-of-school suspensions contributes to poor academic achievement, high dropout rates, and the staggering achievement gap between low-income minority children in Connecticut and their higher-income peers.”[6] Increased run-ins with the juvenile justice system also result, as evidenced by a 2007 report that “89 percent of 16 and 17-year olds involved with the juvenile justice system had been suspended or expelled from school.”[7]

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

Because of the potentially adverse and significant impact an out-of-school suspension can have on a student’s future, it is imperative to seek the advice of an experienced school law practitioner if your child faces a suspension. Should you have any questions regarding school discipline or other education law matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] “School suspension rates drop, but minority students still overrepresented,” by Jacqueline Rabe Thomas. October 2, 2012: http://www.ctmirror.org/story/17615/school-suspension-rates-plummet-minority-students-still-overrepresented

[2] Id.

[3] “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School,” by Daniel J. Losen and Jonathan Gillespie. August 2012: http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/resources/projects/center-for-civil-rights-remedies/school-to-prison-folder/federal-reports/upcoming-ccrr-research/losen-gillespie-opportunity-suspended-ccrr-2012.pdf

[4] Id.

[5] See Footnote 1.

[6] “Teaching Discipline: A Toolkit for Educators on Positive Alternatives to Out-of-School Suspensions,” by Alexandra Dufresne, J.D., Annemarie Hillman, Cari Carson, and Tamara Kramer. June 2010: http://www.ctvoices.org/sites/default/files/edu10discipline.pdf

[7] Id.

The Disproportionate Representation of Minorities in Special Education Classes

This past July, a new law went into effect here in Connecticut that requires the State Department of Education to identify school districts that “disproportionately and inappropriately identif[y] minority students as requiring special education because such students have a reading deficiency.”[1] Under this statute, the term “minority student” takes on the public’s common understanding: any student that is non-white or of Hispanic/Latino ethnicity.

In 1954, the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that struck down de jure racial segregation, noting that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”[2] Since then, many great strides have been made to offer free, appropriate public education to all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, and disability. In the realm of special education, Congress has enacted various statutory schemes that provide comprehensive protections for children with mental or physical disabilities. This occurred most notably in the form of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and its predecessor, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), which “ushered in an era in which the federal government became active in financing and regulating special education services provided by local districts.”[3]

The goal was noble: ensuring that students with disabilities would receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) on par with students in regular classrooms. Unfortunately in practice, African American and Hispanic students are being disproportionately identified as having emotional behavioral disorders and intellectual disabilities, and are thus “more likely to be served in special education classes and residential placements more than their peers.”[4] One study in Massachusetts, for example, revealed that while African Americans represented approximately 12.4% of the total U.S. population, they were “approximately 1.3 times (approximately 30%) more likely than non-African American students to be found eligible for special education.”[5] Hispanic students received similar results.

What is the source of this improper labeling? As a New York Times columnist mused, “the students are being placed in special education because educators are misinterpreting behavior problems and misunderstanding cultural differences.”[6] Connecticut was not innocent in this respect, as one civil rights lawyer dubbed “Connecticut’s dirty little secrets in education.”[7] As further highlighted in the same Times article:

  • Hartford: Hispanic students were “more than four times as likely as whites to be identified as having a learning disability.”
  • Norwalk: African American students constituted 36% of the special education population, but was only 25% of the total student population.
  • West Hartford: African American students were “more than five times as likely as whites to be diagnosed as having an emotional disturbance.”
  • Windham: Hispanic students constituted 58% of the total student population, but represented 64% of the special education population and “nearly 70 percent of students classified as having a speech or language impairment.”

Other reasons cited include subjectivity in decision-making that allows for bias and misinterpretation of cultural cues – such as “bad” as a slang for “cool” being misread by an evaluator as exposure to “negative influences.”[8] In this example, the social worker involved stated, “It really started to speak loudly to the fact that people involved didn’t understand our community.”

Nonetheless, Connecticut’s Public Act 12-116 § 90 is certainly a step in the right direction to ensure that minority students are not inappropriately and disproportionately placed into special education programs when it is not warranted. Only time will tell whether meaningful progress will be made, or whether litigation will be necessary because such progress is “uneven” or “moving too slowly in the desired direction.”[9]

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

If you are a parent who believes that your child has been improperly placed as a special education student, it is imperative that you are aware of your rights and consult an experienced school law attorney. Should you have any questions about special education or other education law matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] Public Act 12-116 § 90(a).

[2] Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 495, 74 S. Ct. 686, 692 (1954).

[3] “Special but Unequal: Race and Special Education,” by Matthew Ladner and Christopher Hammons. 2001: http://www.dlc.org/documents/SpecialEd_ch05.pdf

[4] “The overrepresentation of African American students in special education,” by Latanya Fanion. July 22, 2010: http://www.examiner.com/article/the-overrepresentation-of-african-american-students-special-education

[5] “Disproportionality: A Look at Special Education and Race in the Commonwealth,” by Matthew Deninger. Pp. 1, 4. September 2008: http://www.doe.mass.edu/research/reports/Edbrief_final.pdf

[6] “Special Education and Minorities,” by Avi Salzman. November 20, 2005: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/20/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/20ctspecial.html

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

Negligence Claims Against School Following Son’s Suicide

Plaintiff’s Negligence Claims Against School Following Son’s Suicide Survive Motion to Strike, Proceeds Further Into Litigation

Michael Girard was a senior at Putnam High School during the 2005-2006 academic year when his guidance counselor learned that he was suicidal and/or had threatened to kill himself. However, the counselor took no action to aid Michael despite a conversation with him about the threat, and simply let him leave for home by himself. Michael also “expressed an intention to harm or kill himself in the presence of employees and agents of the High School, Board of Education, and Town” while on school grounds during school hours. Once again, no official action was taken by any of these individuals.

On March 23, 2006, Michael committed suicide by methadone toxicity.

At the time of Michael’s death, Putnam schools had a Suicide Prevention Policy (policy) in effect in the district. It set forth “detailed guidelines” on actions for staff to take when confronted with a scenario such as Michael’s. It required “immediate notification of emergency personnel or school psychologist or social worker,” and stated, “Under no circumstances is a student allowed to go home. The student must be released only to a parent, guardian, or other responsible adult.”

In light of this policy, Michael’s parents filed a negligence lawsuit against the Town of Putnam, Board of Education, and various school employees, including the guidance counselor (collectively “defendants”). However, the defendants submitted a motion to strike, challenging the legal sufficiency of the amended complaint’s allegations. They argued on two fronts:

  • “The act of suicide is a deliberate and intentional act” absolving the defendants from liability. In other words, because Michael’s death was an unforeseeable, intentional tort, the defendants were could not be sued for negligence.
  • The defendants also claimed governmental immunity protection, pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes §§ 52-557n and 52-557n(b)(6). “[M]unicipalities and its employees may be exposed to liability for acts of negligence unless the function involved the exercise of discretion,” and there is no immunity for ministerial acts (exercise of judgment and discretion not allowed). In essence, the defendants argued that whether to follow the policy was “a discretionary function.”

The Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Windham at Putnam denied the motion to strike as to these claims. It noted that while “suicide generally is an unforeseeable result that serves to preclude liability,” it does not automatically “break the chain of causation if it was a foreseeable result of the defendant’s tortious act.” In this case, the Court determined that Michael’s suicide “could be a foreseeable result of school staff’s failure to follow the suicide prevention policy.” As further explained:

It is foreseeable that if a person declares an intent to commit suicide, suicide is a foreseeable risk if nothing is done. Indeed, it was the written policy of the Putnam High School to immediately safeguard a student and obtain emergency medical or professional assessment and counseling for such a student in that circumstance. That is a clear cut warning of the need to take action. It creates a foreseeable harm as a consequence of a failure to act. No reasonable staff member could have concluded otherwise…

In addition, the Court was not persuaded by the defendants’ second argument. “[T]he Suicide Prevention Policy, by its terms, resolved that staff members are not qualified to assess whether someone is suicidal and it forbids discretion or delay in sending a student, who threatens suicide, to someone who is qualified to make the assessment.” When a staff member faces a situation like Michael’s, they must “follow their own mandatory procedures after a ministerial duty was triggered.” Therefore, the governmental immunity protection was inapplicable.

Ultimately, the Court granted the motion to strike as to intentional infliction of emotional distress claims (as to the parents), but permitted the negligence claims related to Michael’s death to proceed further into litigation. “The plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to show that the defendants committed negligent acts that increased the risk of accomplishment of a suicide by [Michael], and that their negligence was a substantial factor in causing that harm.”

Jury selection and the start of the trial are scheduled to begin at 9:30am on October 16, 2012. The case is Estate of Michael Girard et al. v. Town of Putnam et al., CV-08-5002754-S.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

Should you have any questions about school liability or other education law matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

THE IDEA’S “CHILD FIND” PROVISION: JUST HOW HARD DOES A SCHOOL DISTRICT HAVE TO LOOK?

            Parents, school administrators, and education attorneys are waiting to see if the United States Supreme Court will review the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Compton Unified Sch. Dist. v. Addison, 598 F.3d 1181 (9th Cir. 2010).  That decision significantly increased a School District’s obligation to identify students eligible for special education, and greatly expanded parents’ rights to a due process hearing to determine if the District had failed to discharge its duty.  Although handicapping the Supreme Court is crystal ball gazing, at best, the Court may well not only hear the case, but also reverse the Court of Appeals.  Until the appellate dust settles, this article will give you the new legal landscape and inform students and parents of their expanded rights.

            The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) conditions federal funding to states on their adopting policies and procedures ensuring that “all children with disabilities . . . who are in need of special education services[] are identified, located, and evaluated.”  This provision is known as the “child find” requirement.  The IDEA further requires School Districts to provide written notice to a child’s parents whenever it “proposes to initiate or change” or ”refuses to initiate or change the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child . . . .”

            The student involved in the case, Starvenia Addison, received horrific and indefensible treatment at the hands of the Compton, California School District.  Her school counselor did not consider it atypical for Addison, a ninth-grader, to perform at a fourth-grade level.  In the fall of her tenth-grade year, Addison failed every academic subject.  The counselor considered these grades to be a “major red flag.”  Teachers reported Addison’s work as “gibberish and incomprehensible.”  A third-party mental health counselor recommended that the District assess Addison for learning disabilities.  Despite the recommendation, the District did not refer Addison for an educational assessment and instead promoted her to eleventh grade.

            Addison brought an administrative claim under IDEA seeking compensatory educational services for the District’s failure to identify her needs and provide a free appropriate public education.  An administrative law judge found for Addison and the U.S. District Court subsequently agreed.  An appeal followed to the Court of Appeals.  The Ninth Circuit, obviously (and understandably) deeply offended by the District’s actions, phrased the District’s arguments in such pejorative terms that it was obvious that it, too, was going to find in Addison’s favor.  For example, the Court said: “the School District seeks to cast its deliberate indifference as something other than a ‘refusal.’”  Two Judges of the three-judge panel affirmed the District Court in perfunctory fashion with only casual references to broad legal generalizations.

            The remaining Appellate Judge, however, filed a dissenting opinion that dwarfs the majority opinion in terms of depth, breadth, and legal analysis.  He, too, was troubled by the distressing facts, but essentially found that under the IDEA and state law, a due process hearing may be held only where the District purposefully acts, or refuses to act, as opposed to where the complained-of conduct is best described as negligent.  Actually, the complained-of conduct could also be fairly described as gross negligence or reckless indifference but the dissenting Judge chose not to go there, perhaps fearing that it would lead him to a different result.  The otherwise thorough and well-reasoned dissent offers the Supreme Court a road map to overturning the decision of the Court of Appeals.

            For the time being, however, the decision of the Ninth Circuit in Addison is binding on the Federal Courts in the nine most western states of the United States, and may be considered persuasive, and therefore followed, by other Courts throughout the nation.  In petitioning the Supreme Court to take up the case, the District cites liberally to the dissenting opinion and laments the majority’s creation of a claim for educational malpractice where none has previously existed.  Finally, because there are 2200 school districts and over one million special education students served within the geographical boundaries of the Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court may consider the Addison case sufficiently impactful to warrant review.

            Until  Addison is affirmed, reversed, or otherwise clarified, special needs students and their parents have additional ammunition with which to press their School District for an educational evaluation, an IEP, a due process hearing, and potentially the bringing of an action in U.S. District Court.

       

If you have any questions regarding your child’s education, or any education law matter, contact Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.

Connecticut School Districts and Bullying: What Can Parents Do?

I was greeted this morning with a very unfortunate email.  The email concerned bullying in Westport Schools and included a heart wrenching video of an 8th grade girl claiming to be a victim of bullying in Westport schools. (http://patch.com/A-gcKG) It is just not enough to feel sorry for this victim of bullying, we need to question the effectiveness of the current law and policies in place to avoid the tragic consequences that other towns have dealt with because their students were victims of bullying.

I previously blogged about the revisions to Connecticut’s law against bullying in 2008.  Under Connecticut General Statute section 10-222d, the law requires “any overt acts by a student or group of students directed against another student with the intent to ridicule, harass, humiliate or intimidate the other student while on school grounds, at a school sponsored activity or on a school bus, which acts are committed more than once against any student during the school year.” In addition to definitional changes, the statute requires:

  1.  teachers and other staff members who witness acts of bullying to make written notification to school administrators;
  2. prohibits disciplinary actions based solely on the basis of an anonymous report of bullying;
  3. requires prevention strategies as well as interventions strategies;
  4. requires that parents of a student who commits verified acts of bullying or against whom such bullying occurred be notified by each school and be invited to attend at least one meeting;
  5. requires school to annually report the number of verified acts of bullying to the State Department of Education (DOE);
  6. no later than February 1, 2009, boards must submit the bullying policies to the DOE;
  7. no later than July 1, 2009, boards must include their bullying policy in their school district’s publications of rules, procedures and standards of conduct for school and in all of its student handbooks, and
  8.  effective July 1, 2009, boards must now provide in-service training for its teacher and administrators on prevention of bullying.

Westport responded to the requirements of this statute with a comprehensive bullying policy which can be found on the school district’s website under the tab for parents, and then selecting policies.  Here is the direct link to the policy: (http://www2.westport.k12.ct.us/media/policies/prohibition_against_bullying_5131.911_revised_8.25.2008.pdf)

Armed with Connecticut’s law and Westport’s policy, what should we do as parents, community members, and professionals?  I do not profess to have the answers but at a minimum, we should discuss this with our children, question the school administrators, guidance staff and teachers. Together we should challenge ourselves to make a difference using the channels available to us.  There are ways that we can help to effectuate change before it is too late.  If you know of a child affected by bullying, please act on their behalf.  Not every student will post a video to tell you this is happening. If the school is not addressing the bullying in a meaningful way to eradicate the conduct, legal redress is available and the courts will readily intervene.

If you have any questions please feel free to contact me by telephone in the Firm’s Westport office at (203) 221-3100 or by e-mail at SMaya@Mayalaw.com. Attorney Maya is a partner at Maya Murphy, P.C. Her practice is limited to Education Law and Trusts and Estates.

Teacher Placed on DCF’s Child Abuse and Neglect Registry

Twelve-year-old Kyle G., while attending MicroSociety Magnet School in New Haven, Connecticut, was subjected to repeated harassment and bullying, amounting to child abuse and neglect.  However, Kyle’s bully was not another student, but rather his teacher Nicholas Frank.  The witnesses, Kyle’s classmates.

Mr. Frank subjected Kyle to constant ridicule in front of Kyle’s classmates, calling Kyle “cheeks,” “birthing mother,” “fish out of water.” Mr. Frank even resorted to physical harassment, by pinching Kyle’s cheeks.  Mr. Frank limited Kyle to asking only ten (10) questions a day, and if Kyle went over, Kyle could choose his punishment: have his cheeks pinched or a lunch detention.  As a result, Kyle became terrified in class, as he was afraid of how Mr. Frank was going to make fun of him next. Kyle’s grades started slipping from A’s to C’s. He had trouble sleeping and started wetting his bed.

Kyle’s mother became alarmed and reported her concerns to the school administrators. Upon learning of Mr. Frank’s actions, the school advised him to stop calling Kyle names, stop pinching his cheeks, and to minimize contact with Kyle.  When questioned, other students confirmed Kyle’s story. Students reported that Mr. Frank called Kyle “pregnant” due to his weight.  As a result of the investigation, Mr. Frank was suspended for eight days without pay.

Connecticut Department of Children and Families (“DCF”) learned of the incident and charged Mr. Frank with emotional neglect. A hearing officer substantiated the finding, holding that Mr. Frank “subjected Kyle to ‘acts, statements, or threats’ that would have an adverse impact on Kyle, including referring to his facial appearance and his weight. After substantiating the findings, DCF had a separate hearing as to whether Mr. Frank should be placed on DCF’s central registry of child abuse and neglect.  In deciding to place Mr. Frank on the central registry, the hearing officer determinate that Mr. Frank “in light of the attention given to anti-bullying in the school context, should have been aware of the implications of his statements. Kyle suffered an adverse emotional impact from the plaintiff’s [Mr. Frank’s] behavior as his grades dropped and his fear of school increased.” The hearing officer found that Mr. Frank had a pattern of abuse.

On Mr. Frank’s appeal of the DCF’s findings, the Superior Court rejected Mr. Frank’s arguments that the decision was not based on substantial evidence. The Court stated, “the court defers to the conclusion of the hearing officer who noted that teachers through the schools districts are on notice that poking fun at students is inappropriate behavior.”

If you or someone you know has been a victim of bullying or harassment, please contact a knowledgeable attorney.  At Maya Murphy, P.C., we have decades of experience dealing with Education Law, harassment or bullying, Special Education Law, and discrimination– often in situations where they run concurrently.  We handle all types of issues, in a broad geographic area, which includes Westport, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, and the entire Fairfield County area.

By: Leigh H. Ryan, Esq.

If you have any questions regarding bullying, or any education law matter, contact Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.

What Parents Need to Know About Special Education Law

The state and federal governments enacted various regulations to protect a student with disabilities and to ensure that he or she obtains a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).  Parents play a key role in the success of any special education program implemented for their children. Given the complexity of special education law, it is important to understand the significant responsibility a parent has in the special education system.

Referral to Special Education and Related Services

This is the first step in the process to determine a child’s eligibility for special education and related services. Parents should be aware that you have the right to request such a referral.  The referral must be in writing.  School officials also have the ability to make a referral.  However, a parent is often in a better position to suspect any disabilities, and can make an early referral to special education services through Connecticut’s Birth to Three program, prior to enrollment in school.

Planning and Placement Team (PPT)

The PPT reviews all referrals to special education. As a parent of a child, you have the right to be actively involved in the PPT, and are, in fact, a valued asset of the PPT.   A PPT generally consists of the parent(s), one of the child’s educators, a special education teacher, a representative of the school district, a pupil services personnel, and the child (depending on age).   As a parent, you have the right to include other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding your child.  As a valued member of the PPT, the school district must try to schedule meetings at a mutually agreeable time and place for you and must notify you, in writing, at least five (5) school days prior to holding the meeting.

Evaluations, Independent Educational Evaluations (IEE), and Reevaluations

The evaluation is the study used to determine a child’s specific learning strengths and needs, and ultimately determine whether your child is eligible for special education services. As an active participant, a parent can assist the PPT in designing the evaluation.  That is why sharing with the PPT all important information concerning your child’s skills, abilities, observations, and needs can be extremely beneficial to the process.  If you disagree with the evaluation conducted by the school district, you have a right to obtain an independent educational evaluation (IEE).  Such an IEE can be obtained at the school district’s expense, unless the school district can prove its evaluation is appropriate or that the IEE does not meet the school district’s criteria. If the school district believes that its evaluation was appropriate, it must initiate a due process hearing (or pay for the IEE).  In either event, you have a right to an IEE. However, if the school district’s evaluation is found appropriate, the parent will have to bear the cost of the IEE.  Reevaluation must be performed at least once every three (3) years, or sooner if conditions warrant. At the reevaluation, the educational needs of your child will be assessed, along with present levels of academic and related development needs of your child to determine whether your child continues to need special education and related services and whether your child’s IEP needs to be modified.

Individualized Education Program (IEP)

The IEP is a written plan that describes in detail your child’s special education program created by the PPT. Given the IEP is designed specifically for your child, it is vital that as a parent you exercise your right to be actively involved in the PPT meetings.  The IEP is designed to identify your child’s current levels of education and functional performance and any modifications or accommodations your child needs to participate in the general education curriculum. A child with a disability must, to the maximum extent possible, be educated with his/her nondisabled peers.  This is called the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). By law, you are entitled to receive a copy of your child’s IEP within five (5) school days after the PPT meeting was held to develop or revise the same.

Informed Consent

Prior to evaluating a child for the first time, a school district must obtain the parent’s written informed consent.  Informed consent means that a parent has been given all the information needed to make a knowledgeable decision. Written informed consent must also be obtained prior to the initial placement into special education, before a child is placed into private placement, and before a child is reevaluated.  As a parent, you can refuse to give your consent and you can withdraw consent once it has been given.  Giving consent for an initial evaluation does not mean that consent was given to place a child into special education or for any other purposes.  A school district must obtain separate written informed consent for each.

Placement

To the maximum extent possible, your child must be educated with his/her nondisabled peers in a general education classroom.  Removal from the school that your child would attend had he/she not had a disability, should only occur when the nature or the severity of the disability is such that educating your child in that setting cannot be achieved satisfactorily.  If this is the case with your child, the PPT must find an appropriate educational placement as close as possible to your home, at the cost of the school district.  While you can place your child in private placement on your own, there is no guarantee of full or partial reimbursement from the school district and that will ultimately depend on the findings by a hearing officer.

Disciplinary Procedures

The school district’s code of conduct applies to all children, with or without a disability. Prior to any suspension or removal, your child has the right to an informal hearing conducted by a school administrator. If it is determined by the PPT that the behavior was caused or related to your child’s disability, then your child may not be removed from the current education placement (except in the case of weapons, drugs, or infliction of serious bodily harm).  It is the PPT’s obligation to conduct a functional behavioral assessment and implement a behavioral intervention plan.

Access to Records

If your child has not reached the age of majority, as a parent you have a right to inspect and review his/her school records. The request must be in writing. The school district must allow you to review the records within ten (10) school days from your request or within three (3) school days if you need the information for a PPT meeting.  Connecticut law provides that you are entitled one free copy of your child’s records, and the school district has up to five (5) school days to provide you with that copy.

Due Process

A parent has the right to ask for a due process hearing as a result of the school district’s refusal to consider or find that your child has a disability, to evaluate your child, to place your child in a school program that meets his/her needs, or to provide your child with a FAPE.   A parent may bring an advocate or attorney with them to aid throughout the hearing.  A hearing officer will make a final decision within 45 days from the start of the timeline.  Generally, while a due process hearing is pending, a child’s classification, program or placement cannot be changed.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

There are three ways, other than a full due process hearing, to settle disputes between parents and the school district. The first is the Complaint Resolution Process, wherein a parent files a written complaint with the Bureau of Special Education, alleging the local school district has violated a state or federal requirement.  Within sixty (60) days, a written report which includes the Bureau’s findings, conclusions, corrective actions and recommendations, will be mailed to the Complainant.  The second alternative is mediation. Both parties (the parents and the school district) must agree to mediate the dispute.  At mediation, if an agreement is reached, it is placed in writing and is legally binding.  All discussions during mediation are confidential.  The last alternative is an advisory opinion. This is a non-binding opinion, issued by a hearing officer, after a brief presentation of information by both parties.  After receiving the advisory opinion, the parties can decide to settle the dispute or proceed to a full due process hearing.

By: Leigh H. Ryan, Esq.

If you have any questions regarding special education law, or any education law matter, contact Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.

 

What You Need to Know About Your Child’s Education

One of the reasons that parents work so hard is to be able to provide a better life and a better future for their children. The bedrock of a bright future is a good education.  As a parent, it is important to understand your rights and obligations when it comes to your child’s education.

Adequate Education

As a parent, you are required to have your children enrolled in public school, unless the parent can show that the child is receiving equivalent instruction elsewhere. Under Connecticut law, the child must be “instructed in reading, writing, spelling, English grammar, geography, arithmetic and United States history and in citizenship, including a study of the town, state and federal governments.” Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-184.

School Accommodations

The local school board is required to provide school accommodations to every child, age five (5) or over and under twenty-one (21), with a free appropriate public education. This includes children with special needs. The law also provides for your child’s education to take place in the district in which you live.

Absences

The State of Connecticut has strict regulations concerning a child’s absence from school. Specifically, the State declares a child who has four (4) or more unexcused absences in a month or ten (10) or more unexcused absences during the school year as a “truant.” The designation of your child as a truant results in the activation of certain policies and procedures of the school board, including but not limited to, the notification of the parents, services and referrals to community organizations offering family support, meetings with the parents and school personnel, and possible notification to the Superior Court.  Conn. Gen. Stat. §10-198a. Habitual truants could even face arrest for failure to attend school. Conn. Gen. Stat. §10-200.

Open Choice

Connecticut law has established alternatives to traditional public school education. A parent can home school their children, as long as they comply with Conn. Gen. Stat. §10-184. A parent can choose to send their child to private school, as long as that private school conforms to Connecticut’s laws. But what many parents are not aware of is that Connecticut also offers charter, magnet and vocational schools, and the “open choice” program.  Given the number of opportunities available to parents and children in Connecticut, it is important to research the various options to find the best match for you and your child.

Discipline

The school has the right to discipline your child for breaking school rules. This could mean removing your child from the classroom, giving an in-school suspension, giving an out-of-school suspension, or even expelling your child from school. Prior to any suspension or removal, your child has the right to an informal hearing conducted by a school administrator. If the school is attempting to expel your client, there will be an expulsion hearing. You have a right to an attorney during these proceedings.

Medications

The school, prior to prescribing any medication to your child, must receive a written order from  an authorized prescriber, the written authorization of the child’s parent or guardian, and the written permission of the parent allowing communication between the prescriber and the school nurse.  Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-212a-2(b). The law also permits school districts to allow children to self-administer prescribed emergency medications, such as asthma inhalers, if the child has a verified chronic medical condition and is capable to self-administer.

Bullying

Bullying has become a pervasive problem within schools. State and Federal laws state that the school must investigate reports of bullying. The schools are obligated to meet with the children that are being bullied and whom are doing the bullying. If the schools fail to take certain steps to protect children from bullying, the school could be subject to civil liability. Therefore, if your child is being bullied, bring it to the attention of the schools so that they can attempt to remediate the situation.

Bullying is not just peer-on-peer. Recently, in Frank v. State of Connecticut Department of Children and Families, the Court upheld a hearing officer’s decision placing Mr. Frank’s name on the child abuse and neglect registry, for his bullying of one of his students. Consequently, as a parent you should be aware that bullying can take many forms, and can occur by teachers and other faculty members. 2010 Conn. Super. LEXIS 3085, J.D. of New Britain, Docket No. CV-10-6005213-S (2010).

School Records

A parent has the right to see their child’s school records. A school is required to provide you with a copy of your child records within 45 days (within 10 days if your child is receiving special education services).  The school also has to provide the records free of cost if you are unable to afford the copying fees.

The school is not allowed to share your child’s school records without your written permission. While they are allowed to share your child’s records with other teachers and staff within the school system (or outside the school system in the case of an emergency), generally, your child’s records are private.

If you have any questions regarding your child’s education, or any education law matter, contact Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.