Posts tagged with "principal"

Deliberate Indifference Required for School to be Liable under Title IX for Student-Student Harassment

In a New York District decision earlier this year, a student’s cause of action under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act against the Monroe-Woodbury School District was denied because it did not show deliberate indifference in response to the student’s claim of student-to-student sexual harassment.[1]

Parents on behalf of their fifteen year old daughter brought suit against Monroe–Woodbury Central School District pursuant to Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging that she was deprived of an educational environment free from sexual harassment as required by federal law.

Beginning in January 2010, when she was in the eighth grade, the student was subjected to teasing, taunting, and physical bullying by other students, which she reported to her guidance counselor.  She was sexually assaulted by a male classmate who requested a handjob and subsequently ran her  hands over the genital area of his pants and attempted to shove her hands down his pants.[2] As a result of the incident, the student alleges that she was subjected to more taunting and name-calling by other students and in response began to engage in self- injurious behavior by cutting herself. When she began attending Monroe–Woodbury High School in September, another student and friend of the first continued to harass her and in November sexually assaulted her by pinning her against a locker and pushing his hands down her pants and blouse, touching her genital area and breast.[3]  The student began missing school frequently to avoid continued harassment.  At some point she confided in her guidance counselor that her absenteeism and self-injurious behavior was the result of the persistent teasing and the two incidents of sexual assault by her classmates.[4]

The School District recommended that she attend the GO Program, an out-of-district academic program, to which her parents agreed. After her first day there, CF reported to her parents that she was uncomfortable with this placement because the students there were “in many cases, not attending their regular high schools due to serious disciplinary records and incidents.”[5] When her parents again met with the principal, they requested that their daughter be transferred to another public school to continue her high school education.  The principal refused saying there were no other options besides the GO program.[6]

The parent brought suit alleging the school failed to: (1) initiate an investigation upon the parents’ verbal complaint; (2) conduct a prompt, equitable, and thorough investigation of the charges; (3) ensure that immediate corrective action be taken, including subjecting the offending individuals to appropriate disciplinary measures; and (4) inform CF of her right to pursue legal remedies.

Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that “[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a)[7]. Title IX contains an implied private right of action for plaintiffs who bring suit against educational institutions that receive federal funding, and liability may be imposed upon a school district if it is found to be in violation of this law.

Title IX funding recipients may be held liable for student-on-student harassment if the plaintiff can establish damages only where the school district: (1) was deliberately indifferent; (2) to sexual harassment; (3) of which it had actual knowledge; (4) that was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it deprived the victim of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.[8] A showing of deliberate indifference requires that the school had actual knowledge of the sexual harassment and either responded in a “clearly unreasonable manner in light of the known circumstances,”[9] or responded with remedial action only after a “lengthy and unjustified delay.”[10]

The Court rejected the plaintiff’s assertions that the GO Program was an “inappropriate” placement for her because it did not provide her with a “regular high school environment.” Saying even if it was inappropriate, “Title IX simply does not require recipient school districts to provide students with a ‘regular high school environment.’ Title IX does not prescribe any particular educational experience at all. Rather, Title IX merely prohibits schools from excluding anyone, on the basis of sex, from participating in an educational program that receives federal assistance; or denying the benefits of such programs on the basis of sex; or subjecting anyone in such programs to discrimination on the basis of sex.”[11]  Finding that the school did not cause the discrimination and the School District took some remedial action (not clearly unreasonable under the circumstances) in response to the student’s complaints, the Court dismissed the action.

Bullying and harassment in school should never be tolerated.  The lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C., are experienced and knowledgeable education law practitioners and assist clients in New York, Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, Westport, and elsewhere in Fairfield County. Should you have any questions about bullying, student harassment, school liability or any other 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, by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] KF ex rel. CF v. Monroe Woodbury Cent. Sch. Dist., 12 CIV. 2200 ER, 2013 WL 177911 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 16, 2013)

[2] Compl.¶¶ 10-11

[3] Compl.¶¶ 12-13

[4] Id.

[5] Compl.¶¶ 14

[6] Id.

[7] Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a)

[8] Williams v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. Sys. of Georgia, 477 F.3d 1282, 1293 (11th Cir.2007)

[10] Hayut v. State Univ. of N.Y., 352 F.3d 733, 751 (2d Cir.2003)

[11] KF ex rel. CF v. Monroe Woodbury Cent. Sch. Dist.

 

Extremely Intrusive Strip Searches of Students Are Unconstitutional… Mostly?

On December 2, 2008, a teacher at Pine Academy in Shelton discovered that $70 was taken from her pocketbook. Upon this finding, the school principal “ordered [two teachers] to bring [four male] teens… accused of stealing [the money] individually into a room to be strip-searched. The teens were reported being told to remove their shirts and pull their pants down.”[1] This was in direct contravention of publicized district policy explicitly prohibiting strip searches.[2]

After the teens sued the school district, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its decision in the case of a thirteen-year-old girl who, following unsubstantiated claims that she was dealing drugs, was “pulled out of class, ordered to strip to her underwear [and bra] and further expose herself as school officials searched for prescription-strength ibuprofen. No drugs were found.”[3] This case, Safford Unified School District v. Redding, 557 U.S. ___ (2009), first summarized Fourth Amendment jurisprudence relating to searches conducted by police officers and the relaxed standards applied to those conducted by teachers and school administrators. Applying these principles, the Court explained that “the content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion” because of “the categorically extreme intrusiveness of a search down to the body of an adolescent [for] nondangerous school contraband.”[4] Justice Souter concluded in his majority opinion:

[T]he T.L.O. concern to limit a school search to reasonable scope requires the support of reasonable suspicion of danger or of resort to underwear for hiding evidence of wrongdoing before a search can reasonably make the quantum leap from outer clothes and backpacks to exposure of intimate parts. The meaning of such a search, and the degradation its subject may reasonably feel, place a search that intrusive in a category of its own demanding its own specific suspicions.[5]

After the Pine Academy incident, administration placed the principal and one of the teachers involved on administrative leave for the remainder of the school year, at which point they resigned from their positions.[6] In early August 2010, the four teens each received $27,500 as part of their settlement of the lawsuit.[7]

The language used by Justice Souter leaves open the ability of school officials, should they so choose, to strip search a student if they possess an equally compelling reasonable suspicion to do so, such as to locate dangerous contraband. Therefore, if your child is subject to a strip search at his or her school, it is imperative that you contact an experienced and knowledgeable school law practitioner to understand your rights and courses of action. Should you have any questions regarding strip 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.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.


[1] “2 lose jobs in Ansonia strip-search incident,” by Lauren Garrison. Published February 12, 2009. Accessed October 4, 2012: http://www.nhregister.com/articles/2009/02/12/news/valley/a1-anpineacademy.txt

[2] “Supreme Court Decision Could Affect Ansonia Strip Search Case,” by Diane Orson. Published July 7, 2009. Accessed October 4, 2012: http://www.cpbn.org/article/ansonia-school-strip-search-case

[3] Id.

[4] Safford Unified School District v. Redding, 557 U.S. ___, 8-9 (2009). Accessed October 4, 2012: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/pdf/08-479P.ZO

[5] Id. at 11.

[6] See Footnote 1.

[7] “Ex-students settle Ansonia strip search lawsuit,” by the Associated Press. Published August 12, 2010. Accessed October 4, 2012: http://www.wtnh.com/dpp/news/education/ex-students-settle-ansonia-strip-search-lawsuit

When You Wish Upon a Star You May, Instead, Be Granted a School Suspension!

            On March 22, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (whose rulings form binding precedent for the Federal District Court here in Connecticut) issued its decision in Cuff v. Valley Central School District, Docket No. 10-2282-cv.  The decision stands as mute testimony to what can happen when school administrators react, rather than respond, and judges go after a gnat with a sledgehammer without regard to what else is smashed beneath their blow.  At issue are the contours of a fifth-grade student’s First Amendment rights, and the regulation of his in-school speech.  The decision and its stated rationale erode further those rights and need to be appreciated and understood by parents of children attending public school here in Connecticut.

Facts

            The student involved (“B.C.”) was a ten year old fifth grader at Berea Elementary School in Montgomery, New York.  On September 12, 2007, B.C.’s science teacher asked her students to fill in a picture of an astronaut and write various things in the body and appendages of the astronaut.  The class was instructed to write a “wish” in the left leg of the astronaut.  The teacher told the class that “you can write, like, anything you want . . . you can involve a missile . . . [y]ou can write about missiles.”  Thereafter, B.C. wrote on the astronaut as his “wish”: “Blow up the school with the teachers in it.”

            B.C. told his classmates seated nearby what he was going to write in the picture and the other students laughed in response.  A neighboring female student walked over to look at B.C.’s picture and reportedly also laughed at it.  She then approached the teacher—who perceived the female student to be “very worried”—and told the teacher about the drawing.  The teacher asked B.C. if he meant what he had written, to which B.C. reportedly responded “with a blank and serious face.”  The teacher then sent B.C. to the principal’s office.

            B.C. told the principal that he did not mean what he had written.  The principal called the school Superintendent for advice regarding B.C.’s punishment and the Superintendent stated that suspension was appropriate.  Incredibly, at the end of the meeting, the principal asked B.C. to sign a document consisting of the principal’s notes as taken during the meeting.  B.C. signed the document notwithstanding the fact that he could not read the principal’s handwriting (the opinion is silent on whether B.C. signed in crayon).  Later that day, the principal met with B.C. and his parents where B.C. again stated that he did not mean what he had written and that he was only kidding.

            Following that meeting, the principal imposed a five-day out-of-school suspension, and a one-day in-school suspension based upon the “wish.”  Upon appeal, the District Board of Education upheld the suspension, and B.C.’s parents filed a federal lawsuit claiming that his suspension violated his First Amendment right to freedom of expression, and constituted an excessive punishment.  The federal District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the school board from which B.C.’s parents appealed to the Court of Appeals.

The Court’s Analysis and Decision

            The Second Circuit began its discussion with a review of the Tinker, Fraser, Hazelwood trilogy of Supreme Court cases, as informed by a recent decision of its own (Doninger) before restating the operative, objective test governing constitutional protection of B.C.’s “wish”: “whether school officials might reasonably portend disruption from the student expression at issue.” (Parenthetically, it should be noted that Tinker required the reasonable “forecast of substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities”—those qualifiers have meaning).  The test does not require school administrators to prove that actual disruption occurred or that substantial disruption was inevitable.  The relevant inquiry goes to the reasonableness of the administration’s response, as opposed to the intent of the student.

            In upholding the suspension and thereby finding that it was reasonably foreseeable that the astronaut drawing could create a substantial disruption at the school, the Second Circuit relied upon the facts that (a) B.C. had prior disciplinary issues, (b) his prior drawings and writings also “embraced violence,” (c) the drawing was seen by other students in the class, and (d) the reporting female student was perceived as “very worried.”    The first two factors seem to impermissibly shift the analysis from the “speech” to the “speaker,” where B.C.’s prior disciplinary issues were hardly atypical of a 10 year-old boy.  (Query whether B.C.’s “wish” would have been protected First Amendment expression if it had been drawn by a student other than B.C., i.e., one with an unblemished disciplinary record?).  The court also deemed irrelevant whether the “wish” was intended as a joke, and the fact that B.C. lacked the capacity to carry out the threat.  Post Columbine, courts have displayed extraordinary deference to school officials where there is any portent of violence contained within student speech or expression.

            The court concluded its opinion with an extended syllogism that has to be read to be appreciated.  Suffice it to say that the Court of Appeals begins with B.C.’s “wish” and constructs a chain of reasonably foreseeable consequences ending with a decline in parental confidence in school safety, the need to hire security personnel, and even a decline in enrollment.  As a result, the court held B.C.’s suspension to be constitutional.  This would appear to be a “zero tolerance” case that was decided to B.C.’s detriment solely because nobody wanted to be held retroactively responsible for whatever B.C. might do in the future.

The Dissent

            The Second Circuit decision was decided by a three-judge panel, on a 2-1 basis.  One judge wrote a lengthy dissent.  Therein he stated his belief that a jury could conclude that B.C.’s “stab at humor” could barely cause a stir at school, much less a substantial disruption.  Few students saw the drawing and those that did laughed as a result.  Not a single student understood B.C.’s “wish” to be a serious threat.

            The law does not have a “litmus test” whereby speech or expression that involves violent content automatically forfeits all First Amendment protection.  The lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and a true threat, are devoid of constitutional protection, whether uttered in school or on the street.  The Supreme Court, however, has made it clear that school officials have broader authority to sanction student speech that might otherwise be protected if made by an adult in another context.  This is a common sense reflection of the special characteristics inherent in the school environment and society’s interest in teaching students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior.  None of those pedagogical concerns were present in B.C.’s case.

            It was B.C.’s teacher who suggested writing about military hardware.  As the dissenting judge succinctly states, with regard to the reporting female student, “a jury could conclude that she was prim, not petrified.”  B.C.’s drawing, viewed briefly and by only a few, did cause brief and minimal disruption in his classroom; some children laughed and a classmate reported him to his teacher.  This is not the “substantial disruption” that Tinker found sufficient to displace a student’s First Amendment rights.

            Significantly, the dissenting judge lamented what he saw as the absence of a causal relationship between the speech sought to be suppressed and the harmful effects that justify its suppression.  Stated differently, the pertinent issue is whether school authorities correctly forecast that B.C‘s “wish” had the potential to cause a substantial disruption, or whether, instead, they improperly used it to try to forecast future conduct of B.C., himself.  While school officials may investigate and detain a student who uses violent or even ambiguous language in order to determine whether he poses a genuine threat to himself or others, there is a huge difference between precaution and protection, on the one hand, and punishment, on the other.

            Finally, natural fear of another Columbine should not blindly and blithely insulate the actions of school officials against constitutional scrutiny.  In the words of Justice Alito in another case, “[i]n their various roles, school administrators must distinguish empty boasts from serious threats, rough-housing from bullying, and an active imagination from a dangerous impulse.”  That was clearly not done in B.C.’s case.  It is one thing for courts to defer to school officials who have thoughtfully applied their background, education, and experience to conclude that a particular form of student speech could result in a substantial disruption at the school.  It is quite another for reviewing judges to reflexively “rubber stamp” the abrogation of student freedom of speech in the name of “political correctness.”

The Takeaway for Parents

            We here at Maya Murphy, P.C. published “Advocating on Your Child’s Behalf: A Parent’s Guide to Connecticut School Law” that contained a section devoted to students’ First Amendment rights in the digital age.  That section contained an in-depth discussion of the Doninger case relied upon by the court in B.C.’s case, and concluded with the warning: “the unsettled status of the law affords school administrators wide latitude in deciding when a student communication can be reasonably seen to create a foreseeable risk of academic disruption.”  Unfortunately, while B.C.’s case may render the law more “settled,” it also leaves parents and students more at risk as a result of a casual utterance or expression at school.  For the time being, it must be assumed that any spoken or written reference to, or depiction of, weaponry, violence, property damage or bodily injury, may form the basis for student discipline.   Students (and their First Amendment rights) will be sacrificed on the altar of “zero tolerance” that sometimes seems also to worship “zero common sense.”

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.

Court Gives Plaintiff in Bullying Case Green Light to Proceed to Trial

In August 2006 Robert and Louise Dornfried filed suit against the Berlin Board of Education, its former and current superintendents,  the principal, the athletic director and the coach of Berlin High School football team on behalf of their minor son, Robby.  Robby’s parents alleged on their son’s behalf that, while a student at the high school and a place-kicker on the varsity football team, he was subjected to “incessant bullying, harassment, intimidation and was the victim of threats and/or acts of violence” by his teammates.

The parents further alleged that they complained of the misconduct to various school administrators, who, despite their knowledge of the behavior, did nothing to stop it.  As a result, Robby was allegedly forced to seek “medical care and treatment” and, halfway through his sophomore year, transferred to Northwest Catholic High School. Robby’s parents brought suit alleging negligence against the various defendants, claiming they knew or should have known that Robby was subjected to incessant bullying, harassment, intimidation, threats and/or acts of violence, but failed to take any action to prohibit, prevent, or even deter such conduct.

In a separate count, the parents claimed the principal, the athletic director and the football coach were reckless in their failure to stop the inappropriate behavior of Robby’s teammates, claiming they exhibited “a blatant and utter disregard for [Robby’s] safety and wellbeing.”  Notably, as permitted by Connecticut law, the plaintiff sought punitive damages under this count. The defendants initially attacked the plaintiff’s suit filing a motion to strike the negligence claims.

Granting the defendants’ motion, the Court held that the principal of governmental immunity barred the negligence claims because, as a general rule, a municipal employee has qualified immunity in the performance of acts that are discretionary in nature.  Although there is an exception when the injured party is an “identifiable person subject to imminent harm,” the Court held that Robby did not fall within that exception, explaining the only identifiable class of foreseeable victims the courts have recognized is that of school children attending public schools during school hours.  The Court ultimately held that, although participation in school sponsored athletic programs is most likely encouraged, participation is on a purely voluntary basis and, therefore, any resulting liability is barred by the doctrine of governmental immunity.  Significantly, although Robby was foreclosed from pursuing his negligence claims, his claim under a theory of recklessness, allowing for the recovery of punitive damages, was left intact. More recently, however, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment attempting to eliminate that cause of action as well.  The defendants essentially claimed that, with respect to the plaintiff’s recklessness count, there are no factual issues in dispute and that as a matter of law, they are entitled to a judgment in their favor.

The court denied the defendants’ motion, however, preserving the plaintiff’s case, as well as the potential for punitive damages.  Explaining its decision, the Court first noted that Robby’s parents alleged the defendants had actual knowledge of the bullying yet failed to act, resulting in further escalation of the bullying, and that the defendants knew their failure to act would result in further harm to Robby.  Significantly, the Court then explained that summary judgment should not be used in cases that concern important public issues or questions of inference as to motive or intent, or ones that involve subjective feelings and reactions.

Citing various factual disputes in this particular case, the Court ultimately held that it is “suffused with subjective impressions, intent, motive and pubic issues which do not easily conform to the standards of summary judgment.” This ruling is significant, in part, because, as mentioned, the plaintiffs alleged that the school system, as well as various administrators, were not just negligent, but were actually reckless in their failure to respond to the bullying in question, thus exposing the school system not only to actual or compensatory damages, but punitive damages as well.  This decision is also significant because, although there is always a potential that such rulings will be appealed, the Court effectively gave the plaintiffs a green light to proceed to trial.

By:       Michael DeMeola, Esq.

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

 

Fired Teacher Sues for Wrongful Discharge and Defamation

A former middle school teacher who was wrongfully terminated by his employer suffered insult upon injury when he was defamed by his principal following his departure from the school, a new lawsuit alleges.

The physical education teacher – who previously had been praised as a “distinguished teacher” by the school – was continually harassed and berated by his supervising principal before ultimately being terminated, as the lawsuit sets forth.  Even after the teacher’s departure from the school, the abuse continued – culminating in the principal making a series of specific, baseless, outrageous statements to the teacher’s former colleagues.

The case is currently pending in the Superior Court in and for the Judicial District of Fairfield at Bridgeport, and has attracted local media attention (see below).  Any questions concerning this matter should be directed to Attorney H. Daniel Murphy at hdmurphy@mayalaw.com.