Wednesday, October 16, 2013
I still have not placed my fingers on the pleadings, but I was able to speak with Erin Cox’s attorney, Wendy Murphy. For those who missed it, yesterday I posted on Massachusetts high school that suspended (from athletic opportunities) a student who drove to a party to come to the aid of an intoxicated friend who needed a ride home. The initial story was that the school suspended Cox for violating its zero tolerance policy in regard to drugs and alcohol even though Cox was not intoxicated. The police were there when she arrived and released her to go home because she had not been drinking. She later put forward evidence to verify her story.
The school suspended her anyway and she brought suit in a local state district court to enjoin the suspension. Thinking it would be an open and shut case of mistake, Cox’s mother appeared without an attorney. The school board, however, arrived with its attorney, who alleged that the school suspended her because she was arrested. The initial basis for suspension, as I understood it, was that she had violated the zero tolerance policy on alcohol. According to school’s student handbook, student athletes are forbidden from “knowingly being and remaining in the presence of other minors using alcohol or illegal drugs or controlled substances.” But since the police were there and blocked her from “being at the party,” suspending her on that ground seems problematic. The school must have realized the logical problem at some point because in court it defended on slightly different grounds. The school’s attorney asserted that Cox had been arrested at the party, suggesting that the arrest was a basis for suspension. At that point, the mother protested that the daughter was not arrested and, when the other side pressed its point, she said they were lying.Reports indicate that the judge appeared to side with the school board on this point. But rather than address the merits of the case, the court dismissed it, indicating the district court lacked jurisdiction because Cox was requesting equitable relief. It told her to go across the street and file with the superior court. When she arrived in superior court, however, she was told she could not appear without an attorney and, thus, should go back to the district court.
This run-around is troubling on several levels. Cox’s attorney later indicated the pleadings cited to the statute that specifically grants the district court jurisdiction. My quick look at the district court website this morning confirmed that it had equitable powers. Thus, the answer to my question yesterday of "where are the courts?" seems to be that they are ducking. The district court, based on Murphy's explanation of the hearing, was falling in line with others that abdicate their duty to seriously examine school discipline cases.
Interestingly, the pleadings included three distinct claims: intentional infliction of emotional distress, Title IX gender discrimination (based on the assertion that male athletes have been treated more leniently for more serious behavior; Cox is a volleyball player and was also stripped of her position as captain), and due process.
Note: This post was updated to reflect that the suspension was from athletics only, not school, which I learned when I later was able to get the complaint.