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Defense in School Lawsuits

Harassment in schools can occur when a student is discriminated against on the basis of national origin, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender, or other identifiable class. A school district may be found liable for harassment if there is no strong, widely disseminated, and consistently enforced policy prohibiting it and no effective complaint procedure is in place. Schools can also be held responsible for the consequences stemming from a failure to take immediate, appropriate steps to respond to a complaint about harassment or bullying, terminate it, and discipline the offending party, be it an employee or another student. When a school has knowledge that a hostile environment exists but does not act on this knowledge, it can be viewed as giving tacit approval to this activity. In such cases, school districts have been found liable for enabling hostile school environment that prevents students from learning.

A lawsuit predicated on the existence of a hostile school environment is likely to prevail if there is a clear and compelling argument that the school failed to meet the professional standard of care, which in turn created a circumstance that prevented a student from benefitting from his or her education. On the other hand, a lawsuit is likely to fail if the school had no actual knowledge or reason to believe that behavior of an employee or student created an environment of harassment. To prevail, an attorney must have an understanding of how schools work from the inside, as well as knowledge of case law and applicable statues and regulations. Understanding how a school administrator should respond and whether the administrator acted reasonably, appropriately, and within the professional standard of care under a specific circumstance will assist with the development of a complaint or the defense of a suit.

Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Example

Mike was a 14-year-old freshman in a small suburban high school. Since elementary school, he had had near-perfect attendance and good grades, and he was well liked by students and teachers. When his science teacher, Janet Frederick, asked Mike to help her to set up science experiments after school for the following day's classes, Mike was flattered. It wasn't unusual for students to be seen in her classroom after school.

School policy was that if a student stayed after school, the parent needed to give permission. This policy was sent to parents and discussed with all students at the beginning of each school year. Mrs. Frederick, however, never sought permission for Mike to stay after school. John Foreman, the principal, never approved Mike's staying late, and Mike's mother didn't ask why he was coming home late three days a week. Mike and Mrs. Frederick were often alone in her classroom and, at one point, another teacher reported it to the office. Additionally, contrary to school rules and policies, she drove him home in her car. Other students noticed that Mrs. Frederick was showing favoritism to Mike, letting him turn in homework late and calling on him in class a lot.

Mrs. Frederick and Mike developed a relationship that any reasonable teacher would guard against. They were becoming too close. Mrs. Frederick knew that, under school policy, she should neither be in her classroom alone with Mike, nor drive him home in her car. The relationship turned sexual and continued for three months.

No one understood why Mike became increasingly distracted from schoolwork. His grades fell, he began missing school, and he didn't turn in homework. Eventually, his school counselor asked to see him. In their second counseling session, Mike told her of the affair. Alarmed at his confession, Mike's counselor immediately went to Mr. Foreman and reported what she was told. Child Protective Services was called and a report was made. Mike's mother was contacted and law enforcement was notified. The same day, Mrs. Frederick was suspended. Rumors flew and some of Mike's classmates started making comments to him about the affair. He became increasingly upset and convinced his parents to enroll him in a private school where he could get a fresh start.

A year after Mike left the school, his parents filed a lawsuit against the district. The suit claimed that a hostile learning environment had developed that became intolerable for him, forcing him to leave the school and costing his parents thousands of dollars in tuition and transportation fees. Let's take a look at the merit of this case and the elements of defense.

Legal Elements of Sexual Harassment and Hostile Learning Environment Lawsuits

Two types of sexual harassment have been established by law: quid pro quo and hostile environment. These are relevant in both workplace- and school-harassment claims. Quid pro quo harassment involves the satisfaction of sexual demands as a condition of receipt of some benefit in return. Hostile environment harassment, the focus of this situation, can be created when unwelcome sexual conduct becomes so severe or persistent that it creates an intimidating, threatening, or abusive environment that affects a student's ability to participate in or benefit from an educational program or activity.

For this analysis, I will apply the hostile environment theory and assume that a school employee who received the report about Mike being seen in Mrs. Frederick's classroom after hours failed to act on it.

The plaintiff's attorney will argue that the harassment by the teacher became so pervasive and objectively offensive that it deprived Mike of access to educational opportunities provided to all students. Mike's drop in grades and the fact that he left the school attest to this. The facts leading up to these circumstances are compelling: During the time of the affair, he missed 30 days of school and he wasn't completing homework. Because of his continual discomfort with being around the teacher, the rumors swirling around their relationship, and harassment he received from classmates, Mike left the school. His attorney will argue that the conditions amounted to deprival of an educational opportunity.

In Vance v. Spencer County Public School District (231 F.3d 253 [C.A. 6th Cir., 2000]), the Sixth Circuit Court found that when sexually harassing behavior becomes so pervasive that it forces the victim to leave school on several occasions and ultimately forces the student's withdrawal from school, the behavior rises to the level of systematically depriving the victim of access to education. The court sided with the student. By contrast, the 11th Circuit Court ruled in Hawkins v. Sarasota County School Board (322 F.3d 1279 [11th Cir., 2003]) that three female students were not entitled to damages for student-on-student sexual harassment, despite the persistency and frequency of the behavior. In this case, none of the students' grades suffered, no observable change in their classroom demeanor occurred, and none of the students reported the harassment to their parents until months had passed.

The defendant's attorney can raise a strong argument that even though an inappropriate relationship occurred, no official with the authority to stop the behavior had notice of it. Without notice, it is reasonable that Mike and Mrs. Frederick would not have been supervised any differently than any other student or teacher in the school. Defense might also point out that many factors in a child's life can cause distractions from schoolwork - any of which could have contributed to Mike's drop in grades, frequent absences, and transfer to another school. The defense attorney can argue that Mrs. Frederick was acting outside her scope of employment when she engaged in sexual behavior with Mike, and at no time did any sexual act take place at school.

The school will need to overcome the fact that an administrator knew that Mrs. Frederick was meeting with Mike alone in her classroom after school. If it cannot reasonably explain why the school did not investigate her breach of school policy, the school may have difficulty persuading a court that that it could not have known that inappropriate behavior was taking place. If the principal had followed up, interviewing both Mike and Mrs. Frederick to learn why he was frequently with her after hours, then that would weigh in the school's favor. If the principal reprimanded Mrs. Frederick for breaching policy and told her not to have students in her classroom after hours, this also would support the school's case. A school's follow-up to a report of potential misconduct or a violation of school policy may not prevent inappropriate behavior, but a school that fails to do anything in response can be argued to have acted deliberately indifferent.

Racial Discrimination and Harassment Case Study

A sixth-grader of Mexican origin brought a three-inch pocketknife to school against school rules. A teacher saw it and reported it to the principal, and the student received a three-day suspension. His father was called and the boy was not allowed back to school until a conference could take place with the principal and a re-entry plan could be developed.

Even before the student returned to school, his classmates spread rumors. "Carlos is Mexican. They always carry knives," they said. When Carlos returned to school, some students began commenting so that and he and the teacher could hear, "Go back to your own country! We don't need any criminals here." Mr. Marks, the teacher, heard this and told the students to stop, and they did. In another class, the same students made the same remarks loud enough for the teacher, Ms. Romano, to hear. This time, the teacher didn't say anything to the students. Neither teacher reported anything to the principal. The school had an anti-harassment, intimidation, and bullying policy that required teachers to file written reports of such incidents, but the teachers were routinely instructed to deal with discipline in the classroom.

Over time, the harassment increased. In Ms. Romano's science class, Carlos stopped paying attention to the lessons; he was too worried about what the kids were going to say to him and that they might physically hurt him. After two months, Carlos - an otherwise good student - started failing science quizzes and not turning in his math homework. His grades started to go down.

When Carlos brought his report card home, his father started to worry. Finally, he called Mr. Boyd, the principal, and complained that Carlos was being picked on. Mr. Boyd said he didn't know anything about it and would check into it. He spoke with Carlos's teachers and discovered that they did, in fact, hear the harassing comments. They had not followed the school's anti-harassment policy requiring a formal written report to the principal. Mr. Boyd thought this was odd, considering that these teachers did report other inappropriate behavior to him.

After four months of falling grades and tolerating the harassment, Carlos attempted suicide. One year later - after Carlos had been placed in a treatment center and transferred to a private school at considerable cost - his parents filed a lawsuit against the school on various state and federal claims. Again, let's examine the issues in this case and the legal elements that are relevant to the work of the plaintiff and defense attorneys.

Environmental Harassment in Schools Involving Race or National Origin

Environmental harassment, also known as a hostile work or school environment, arises in the school context when racial discrimination is so severe and pervasive that it distracts a student from his education. A racially hostile environment may be created by oral, written, graphic or physical conduct related to an individual's race, color, or national origin in a way that interferes with an individual's ability to participate in or benefit from school programs. Plaintiff and defendant attorneys should start by determining whether the school has created or allowed the existence of a racially hostile environment that prevents a student from adequately learning or thriving.

The most common form of racial discrimination in education is harassment by students. On the part of teachers, discrimination most frequently is related to in-class discipline. This behavior is especially prevalent toward African-American and Latino high school students. Other teacher-related discrimination can range from unfair grading to acceptance of discriminatory behavior from students in the classroom. Administrator-related discrimination is more common than teacher discrimination. Administrators may over penalize minority students. Minority students are more likely to be suspended or expelled than their majority peers.

In a lawsuit based on an allegation that a racially hostile learning environment exists, the attorney's focus should be on whether any difference in treatment of the student created a circumstance that limited the student's ability to participate in and benefit from a program. In this situation, I will assume that both parties agree that Carlos experienced harassment and that his grades went down.

Carlos's attorney will argue that the school breached the professional standard of care when its teachers and principal failed to act reasonably and appropriately. He will argue that the school ignored the behavior of the students, let the harassment continue, and gave the students tacit permission to continue their behavior.

Plaintiff's attorney will have a strong argument if he can demonstrate that the teachers who heard the harassing comments of students merely told the students to stop but did nothing more. The school had a written policy that this type of behavior is to be reported to the principal and that appropriate action would be taken according to the student code of conduct. If Carlos's attorney can produce the policy, obtain deposition testimony from the teachers and the principal that reinforce the policy, and demonstrate that the policy was breached, he will have a strong position. The next focus will need to be to demonstrate how this breach caused Carlos's grades to decline and eventually force his withdrawal from school. If these elements can be shown, then the attorney might be successful in recovering the tuition the parents paid, as well as damages under certain Constitutional provisions.

Defendant's attorney will likely argue that intervening variables, such as the recent divorce of Carlos's parents, caused distractions that resulted in the drop in Carlos's grades. He might also argue that the decision for Carlos to attend a private school was not predicated on him being forced out but was a deliberate decision by one parent to place financial pressure on the other and for Carlos to receive a better education than provided in the public school. The attorney will need to show that the teachers acted reasonably under the circumstances when the students teased Carlos and that they followed established school procedure in telling them to stop. He will need to show that it was reasonable and appropriate for the principal to suspend Carlos for bringing a knife to school. This was within the professional standard of care and backed by school policy. Finally, it can be argued that the school can't control rumors or how students talk about one another.

Conclusion

In lawsuits alleging the existence of a hostile school environment, a school can be held liable if it can be shown that this environment prevented a child from benefitting from educational opportunities afforded to all students in the school. In isolation, the facts of a case are not enough to establish liability; the merit of a suit or successful defense against one hinges on whether the facts stem from deviations from accepted standards of practice.

Attorneys for plaintiff and defendant will need to determine whether the facts contradicted school policies, resulted from disregard to professional standards or care, or could be foreseen given other relevant issues unique to a particular case. With respect to the actions of school administrators, the questions of "What did you know?", "When did you know it?", and "What did you do about it?" are particularly relevant.

If it can be shown that the totality of circumstances created an environment that effectively deprived a student of an educational opportunity, plaintiff attorneys will have a strong argument. On the other hand, if it can be shown that school had no knowledge of circumstances that created a hostile environment, did know and acted reasonably and appropriately under the circumstances, or that forces outside the school environment caused harm to a student, then the defense may prevail.

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Dr. Edward Dragan, provides education expert consultation for high-profile and complicated cases. As an educator and administrator, he has more than 35 years' experience as a teacher, principal, superintendent and director of special education. He also has served as a state department of education official.

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