Thursday, September 12, 2013
This past April, the documentary Bully was released. Last night, I finally got the chance to watch it. While the stories in the documentary were not "news" to me, it was very difficult to watch. The movie follows the lives of five different children in four different states: two, seemingly middle class, white children; a white female, who came out as gay in middle school; an African-American female, who was an honor student and basketball player; and a white middle school boy, who had been born premature and had some physical effects as result (I am not sure whether they would qualify as disabilities). The two middle class kids had committed suicide. The white female was subject to physical assault, and verbal harassment by both teaches and students. The African American female had apparently be subjected to harassment, but her story focuses on her response, which was to bring a gun to school to stop the harassment (prior to the documentary). The other white student was subject to severe verbal harassment, threats, and physical violence.
Alabama State University was awarded $1.54 million grant from the National Institutes of Health on Monday, which makes ASU’s other recent newsworthy event—in the form of a scalding opinion from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals—all the more embarrassing. In Weatherly, et al. v. Alabama State University, released last week, the circuit court upheld a hostile work environment and retaliation verdict for over $1 million against the university. You know that a case will be bad when it opens with a statement that it “should greatly concern every taxpaying citizen of the State of Alabama, especially because it involves a public institution largely funded with tax dollars.” Three ASU female employees alleged that they were racially abused and sexually harassed while working for two ASU administrators: Dr. John Knight, Jr., Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, and LaVonette Bartley, an associate executive director. The plaintiffs—two of whom are black and one is biracial—were repeatedly called racial slurs by Bartley. Bartley once called one of the women’s sons, a 7-year-old, a racial epithet in his presence. Bartley also routinely commented on the women’s bodies, touching them and pressing against them at their desks. When one of the women complained to Knight about Bartley’s conduct, Knight said that he “was not going to walk on eggshells around [his] office" and that no one was going to tell him “ how to run his office.” (Knight also allegedly made sexual and inappropriate comments to one of the plaintiffs.) Knight warned employees that if they contacted the EEOC, they would be terminated. He made good on that promise by terminating two of the plaintiffs shortly after they filed EEOC complaints. ASU appealed the trial verdict, raising three issues: that the district court abused its discretion by denying ASU’s motion to sever, that the district court erred in finding that the women were entitled to front pay; and that the district court should have granted ASU’s (untimely) motion for judgment as a matter of law timely, or in the alternative, its 60(b) motion. The Eleventh Circuit disposed of these appellate claims on procedural grounds. (Quite frankly, given that ASU did not timely raise its claims below, it probably should not have bothered to appeal at all. Experts estimate that after attorneys’ fees, court costs and interest are added to the plaintiffs’ recovery, ASU’s bill could be more than $3 million.) The circuit court closed its opinion with a blistering indictment:
We are left to speculate who is in charge at ASU. Regardless, however, we are unnerved by the apparent acquiescence to, if not outright condoning of, the abusive work environment created by its high-level employees. Such conduct simply has no place in a work environment, especially at a publicly funded university.Read the opinion in Weatherly, et al. v. Alabama State University here.
Tuesday, September 3, 2013
The Second Circuit in KF ex rel CF v. Monroe Woodbury Central School Dist, 2013 WL 4525209 (2d Cir. 2013), held that the school district was not deliberately indifferent to two years of peer-on-peer bullying, which included two instances of sexual assault. The victim became extremely anxious and began harming herself. The key fact in avoiding liability was that the young woman kept the incidents to herself. Thus, the school was not on notice of them and could not have been deliberately indifferent under controlling Supreme Court precedent. Assuming the court recounted the facts correctly in its opinion and that the school did not obtain notice through some means unknown to the court and the girl's parents, the court probably got this one right. The question then is why this case was brought.
Monday, July 29, 2013
In Hill v. Madison County School Bd., 2013 WL 3712330 (N.D.Ala.,2013), a female student filed Title IX, Equal Protection, Substantive Due Process, and various state law claims against the school district and its employees for an alleged sexual assault/rape by one of her male classmates. The facts of the case are extensive. It suffices to say that the male student had been disciplined in some form or another for around a dozen different incidents. Most of the incidents were non-sexual in nature and were directed at different students. A few, however, were sexual in nature and disciplined by in-school suspension and a short term suspension.
Eventually, his sexual advances and harassment were directed at plaintiff. The first few times, she did not notify the school, but when he asked her to meet him in the bathroom for sex, she told two teachers. The teachers then concocted a plan whereby the girl would agree to meet him in the bathroom so that they could catch the boy in the act. They also informed a principal of this plan, who apparently did nothing to stop or prevent the plan. The plan, however, went awry because the teachers did not get to the correct bathroom in time When the arrived, the boy had already pulled down the girl's clothes and attempted to have sex with her against her will.
Friday, June 28, 2013
A newly decided case, Glowacki ex rel v. Howell Public School Dist., 2013 WL 3148272 (E.D. Mich. 2013), involves the tension between preventing bullying in school and respecting students' free speech rights. During Anti-Bullying Day at Howell High School, plaintiff was thrown out of a teacher’s classroom for saying, among other things, “I don’t accept gays.” The plaintiff sought an injunction and declaratory relief against defendant, alleging a violations of the First Amendment.
Relying on Tinker v. Des Moines, the court held that the plaintiff’s comments were protected by the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause, as they were an expression of his opinion rather than harassing behavior directed at other students. The court rejected the teacher's claim of qualified immunity for the claims against him personally, but held that the school district was not liable for the teacher's violation of the student's rights because the district's "policies comport with the school speech standard set forth in Tinker and are therefore constitutional. At most, the School District negligently adopted a policy that posed a risk to the First Amendment rights of its students and negligently failed to provide training on the intersection of anti-bullying policies and the First Amendment.” But the court found that the plaintiffs' allegations were devoid of facts indicating that the district was negligent in training its teachers.
The case is also interesting for its substance and because it cites to one of our colleagues in regard to its analysis of whether the student's speech was protected. The relevant section reads as follows:
There is no indication from the evidence here that the negative comments Daniel made about homosexuality threatened, named, or targeted a particular individual or, for that matter, that Daniel even knew that there was a homosexual student in his economics class. (McDowell Dep., McDowell's Mot. Summ. J. Ex. B, at 80:13–17.) Given that the speech did not identify particular students for attack but simply expressed a general opinion—albeit one that some may have found offensive—on the topic of homosexuality, the Court finds that Daniel's expressive conduct did not impinge upon the rights of other students. See generally Emily G. Waldman, A Post–Morse Framework for Students' Potentially Hurtful Speech (Religious and Otherwise), 37 J.L & Educ. 463, 468–69, 499–503 (2008) (suggesting a framework for analyzing potentially hurtful student speech by asking whether the speech was directed at a particular individual, and if not, assessing the impact of such speech on the educational performance of students hearing the speech).
For those who read in full, you will see that it broaches serious issues and one could query the extent to which the student's behavior could be interpretted was to do more than just express his opinion, but I will leave it to Professor Waldman to tell us whether the court applied her principle correctly. Regardless, Kudos to Professor Waldman, who shows that our scholarship is relevant both in the classroom and in court.
For those interested in knowing a little more about Professor Waldman's article, she shared, at my request, the following explanation:
My article suggested that, in analyzing whether potentially hurtful student speech warrants protection, courts should distinguish between (1) speech that identifies particular students for attack and (2) student speech that is primarily commenting on a political, social, or religious issue. I argued that schools should have broad rein to restrict the first category, but should only be able to restrict speech in the second category when there is a real likelihood that the speech will substantially disrupt the education of at least one other student. I was very pleased to see that the district judge in this case found this distinction helpful.
Thursday, June 13, 2013
Late last year, the ACLU filed an adminstrative complaint with the Office for Civil Rights regarding a Birmingham, Alabama, middle that operated a sex segregated program. The district just entered into an agreement with OCR to end the sex segregation. The facts sound like something from a bygone era. Cribbing from the ACLU release:
Huffman [Middle School] had been separating boys and girls in every grade for all core curriculum classes, homeroom and lunch, on the theory that there are "hard-wired" differences between boys' and girls' brains requiring them to be taught differently. . . Pop theories of hard-wired brain differences between boys and girls have been debunked by neuroscientists, psychologists and educational researchers. Even Birmingham CSD testing researchers were unimpressed with the results of sex separation at Huffman. Analysis of student test results in the areas of reading and mathematics at Huffman and other Birmingham schools that had experimented with sex separation showed no clear pattern of improvement after the initiation of single-sex programs, and the researchers concluded: "There is no definitive proof that the percentage of students scoring proficient is significantly impacted by students being taught in same gender classroom settings.
More on this story here.
Thursday, June 6, 2013
Last week, a federal district court in M.D. v. School Bd. of City of Richmond, 2013 WL 2404842 (E.D. Va. 2013), dismissed a six-year old African American child's claim that his school had been deliberately indifferent to racial and sexual harassment. The child alleged:
Between February and the end of April 2013, other children—identified only as
children of Hispanic ethnicity—persistently teased Plaintiff on the basis of his
race and perceived sexual orientation. ( Id. at ¶¶ 9–12.) Specifically,
the other students repeatedly and continuously directed vulgar and offensive
racial epithets at Plaintiff, verbally abused him, physically assaulted him, and
stole his property. ( Id. at ¶¶ 10–12, 23.) The other students also
insinuated that Plaintiff was gay, apparently owing to Plaintiff's non-violent
demeanor. ( Id. at ¶ 12.) In short, the Plaintiff was subjected to what
might be properly characterized as severe bullying. ( Id. at ¶ 23.)
Ultimately, this led Plaintiff to suffer extreme emotional damage and a fear of
school, even after he later enrolled in a new school. ( Id. at ¶¶ 13–14,
The court reasoned that: a) the sexual harassment was based on perceived sexual orientation rather than gender, the later of which the court indicated is necessary to state a claim; and b) the student transferred to another school before the defendant had an opportunity to address the problem; thus, it was not deliberately indifferent to his parents' complaints.
The court's recitation of the facts is limited, but this case raises a few serious issues. First, other courts have not so easily dismissed claims related to sexual orientation claims, as they posit the question is whether a student is being harassed for failure to conform to gender stereotypes. Nabozny v. Podlesny,92 F.3d 446 (7th Cir. 1996);Higgins v. New Balance Athletic Shoes, Inc., 194 F.3d 252, 261 n.4 (1st Cir. 1999); Schmedding v. Tnemec Co., 187 F.3d 862, 865 (8th Cir. 1999); Doe v. S.E. Greene Sch. Dist., 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12790 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 24, 2006); Schroeder ex rel. Schroeder v. Maumee Bd. of Educ., 296 F. Supp. 2d 869, 879-880 (N.D. Ohio 2003); Montgomery v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 709, 109 F. Supp. 2d 1081 (2000); Carrasco v. Lenox Hill Hosp., 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5637, 2000 WL 520640, at *8 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 28, 2000). This court does not address this precedent.
Second, at such a young age, it seems extremely dangerous to speculate as to what this child's sexual orientation is or is not. This court seems to suggest he is heterosexual, but other students perceive him as gay. Again, I am not sure it matters if the question is whether he is being harassed for failure to confirm to gender stereotypes.
Third, the court's best argument is that none of this matters because the district's reaction cannot be shown to be clearly unreasonable because the student transferred by the time the district expressed a willingness to come up with an intervention plan. The court, however, does not explain why as a matter of law plaintiff's allegations that the school did almost nothing for over a month (which is what led to the transfer and distrust) does not state a claim. I wonder how long any parent would leave their six-year child in this situation if the parent had other options. Is the implication of the court's holding that a parent only has a claim if they take a wait and see approach with the harassment?
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
In doing research for my casebook, I came across a few articles that identified the conflicting and outdated rules that could prevent transgendered athletes from participating in atheletics at all. The NCAA, to its credit, had taken some steps to address the issue. Unfortunately, however, this has been a reletively underdeveloped of the law. I am glad to see that others are continuing to write about it. I just picked up this article yesterday:
Elizabeth M. Ziegler & Tamara Isadora Huntley, “’It Got Too Tough to Not be Me’:
Accommodating Transgender Athletes in Sports”, 39 J.C. & U.L. 467 (2013). Cribbing from its abstract: “This Article will argue that there is a need for standards to ensure that the transgender student-athlete does not encounter problems with participation due to inconsistent rules for state eligibility, conference and tournament eligibility, and national competitive tournaments. Furthermore, inclusion, equal opportunity, and acceptance should be the goals when establishing such standards …. Finally, such standards should be the goal because of the numerous positive effects of athletic participation, including, physical, social and emotional wellbeing, self-discipline, teamwork, and learning how to deal with success and failure.”