Justia Education Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
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Plaintiff was transferred from a class where she instructed emotionally disturbed (“ED”) children to a class where Plaintiff worked with children with moderate intellectual disabilities. Plaintiff alleged that one of her students sexually harassed her between fall 2018 through mid-March 2019. This student, S.M., was an eight-year-old boy diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (“ADHD”). Although the teacher in the classroom recorded the incidents in her notes, or “point sheets,” where she detailed each student’s daily behavior, Plaintiff claims the teacher was generally dismissive of her concerns. After exhausting her remedies with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Plaintiff filed suit against the Chesterfield County School Board (“the School Board”) alleging that she was subjected to a sexually hostile work environment in violation of Title VII.   The district court granted the School Board’s motion for summary judgment. At issue on appeal is whether the district court erred in dismissing Plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim on summary judgment. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, finding that the record does not support a prima facie case for hostile work environment sexual harassment. The court explained that Plaintiff cannot primarily rely upon her own statements to argue that S.M.’s conduct surpassed what could be expected of an eight-year-old child with his disabilities after two special education experts testified that it did not—instead, she is required by law to demonstrate it. Further, even if Plaintiff established that S.M. targeted her because of sex, she would still be unable to meet the third required element—that is, show that S.M.’s conduct rose to the level of severe or pervasive. View "Regina Webster v. Chesterfield County School Board" on Justia Law

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Charter Day School (“CDS”) a public charter school in North Carolina, requires female students to wear skirts to school based on the view that girls are “fragile vessels” deserving of “gentle” treatment by boys. Plaintiffs argued that this sex-based classification grounded on gender stereotypes violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and subjects them to discrimination and denial of the full benefits of their education in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. Section 1681 et seq. (“Title IX”).  In response, despite CDS’ status as a public school under North Carolina law, CDS denied accountability under the Equal Protection Clause by maintaining that they are not state actors.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s entry of summary judgment for Plaintiffs on their Equal Protection claim against CDS. The court also vacated the district court’s summary judgment award in favor of all Defendants on Plaintiffs’ Title IX claim and remanded for further proceedings on that claim.   The court held that CDS is a state actor for purposes of Section 1983 and the Equal Protection Clause. By implementing the skirts requirement based on blatant gender stereotypes about the “proper place” for girls and women in society, CDS has acted in clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause. The court further held that sex-based dress codes like the skirts requirement, when imposed by covered entities, are subject to review under the anti-discrimination provisions of Title IX. View "Bonnie Peltier v. Charter Day School, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that his public high school suspended him in violation of the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Plaintiff's claims stemmed from the actions taken against him by school personnel after he engaged in a conversation with his classmates about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas Highschool. The district court held that plaintiff's suit was barred under Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), and dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted.The Fourth Circuit concluded that the school board acted as the final policymaking authority in approving plaintiff's suspension, and thus Monell does not bar the suit. Furthermore, plaintiff's complaint plausibly alleges a First Amendment claim where the First Amendment does not permit schools to prohibit students from engaging in the factual, nonthreatening speech alleged here. In this case, plaintiff engaged in a factual conversation with his peers about a current event that is uniquely salient to the lives of American teenagers, a school shooting. The court stated that schools cannot silence such student speech on the basis that it communicates controversial or upsetting ideas. To do so would be incompatible with the very purpose of public education. However, the court concluded that the district court properly held that the complaint alleges no plausible Fifth or Fourteenth Amendment claim. Accordingly, the court reversed in part and affirmed in part. View "Starbuck v. Williamsburg James City County School Board" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. 1981, alleging that the school board discriminated against him on the basis of race in refusing to hire another teacher in the drama department to assist him with tech work in connection with his staging of student performances or, alternatively, in refusing to provide him with additional compensation for the tech work that he performs. Plaintiff also alleged that the school board discriminated against him on the basis of race when compensating him for his "extra-duty" work in connection with other events at the high school.The Fourth Circuit concluded that plaintiff failed to allege plausibly that the school board's failure to pay him a Theater Technical Director Supplement constituted race-based employment discrimination. While the court agreed that it was error for the district court to consult the School of the Arts' website in determining whether the complaint properly alleged that the School of the Arts was an appropriate comparator, the court concluded that the error was harmless. The court also concluded that no reasonable jury could have returned a verdict for plaintiff on his discrimination claim based on the denial of assistance. Finally, the court agreed with the district court that plaintiff did not provide a valid comparator for purposes of supporting this racial discrimination claim. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's dismissal of a portion of the complaint for failing to state a claim. In regard to the remaining claims, the court granted the school board's motion for summary judgment based on plaintiff's failure to present sufficient evidence to support his claims. View "Tabb v. Board of Education of the Durham Public Schools" on Justia Law

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Nine parents of students with disabilities who attend South Carolina public schools and two disability advocacy organizations filed suit challenging a South Carolina provision in the South Carolina state budget that prohibits school districts from using appropriated funds to impose mask mandates. The district court granted a preliminary injunction enjoining the law's enforcement.The Fourth Circuit concluded that the parents and the disability advocacy organizations lack standing to sue the governor and the attorney general, and thus vacated the district court's order granting the preliminary injunction as to those defendants. In this case, although plaintiffs have alleged a nexus between their claimed injuries and the Proviso, they have not established that such injuries are fairly traceable to defendants' conduct or would be redressed by a favorable ruling against defendants. Accordingly, the court remanded with instructions to dismiss defendants from this case. View "Disability Rights South Carolina v. McMaster" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of an action brought by plaintiff, alleging that the school district had violated her daughters' rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The court held that plaintiff's withdrawal of the children from the school district system rendered moot her request for prospective relief. Furthermore, because the district court proceedings under the IDEA are original civil actions, the court held that plaintiff's failure to specify in her complaint that she was seeking compensatory education for her children, or to include allegations from which a request for compensatory education reasonably could be inferred, precludes her present assertion of a live controversy in the district court. View "Johnson v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education" on Justia Law

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In 2014, Davison began to publicly criticize Louden school policies, alleging violations of federal law, misleading budget information, and flouting Virginia’s Conflict of Interest Act. Davison frequently chastised school board members in many forums and during board meetings. He routinely emailed individual board members and made multiple social media posts about his complaints. Davison also commented on board members’ social media platforms. Davison mentioned weapons; there were concerns about the welfare of his children. Board members voiced personal safety concerns, which led to the 2015 no-trespass letters that prohibited his presence on school property and attendance at any school-sponsored activities unless authorized. Davidson’s previous state-court challenge has been dismissed.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Davison’s 42 U.S.C. 1983 suit, citing res judicata. Davison agreed to dismiss his state petition, which included federal claims, with prejudice, despite having the opportunity to withdraw his petition. The board’s policy, which prohibits all personal attacks, regardless of viewpoint, because they cause “unnecessary delay or disruption to a meeting,” is a constitutional policy for a limited public forum because it is viewpoint neutral, and the restriction is reasonable in light of the purpose of the board. The district court correctly determined that Davison did not experience retaliation. With respect to claims against individuals and claims based on reports to protective services concerning Davison’s children, the court cited qualified immunity. Davison was not deprived of procedural due process. View "Davison v. Rose" on Justia Law

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“Jane Doe,” age 19, filed suit. She alleged in detail multiple acts of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, including rape, against her during several months when she was a student at a Fairfax County, Virginia middle school, and the school’s inaction to end the offensive conduct when it was ongoing. She claimed violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and other laws. She alleged that the defendants undoubtedly knew her identity from the extensive details included in the 40-page complaint. Nonetheless, the defendants filed motions to dismiss, arguing that the plaintiff’s failure to provide her true name had deprived the court of subject-matter jurisdiction and that this jurisdictional flaw could no longer be remedied because the statute of limitations for the federal claims had lapsed days after Doe filed her complaint. The plaintiff then disclosed her true name to the court and requested that she be allowed to proceed under a pseudonym.The district court denied the defendants’ motions, and, because the sensitive nature of the allegations warranted “the utmost level of privacy,” it allowed the action to proceed pseudonymously. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. While the plaintiff had not adhered to FRCP 10(a), which requires that the title of a complaint include the names of all parties, that failure was immaterial to the court’s subject-matter jurisdiction. View "B.R. v. F.C.S.B." on Justia Law

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Doe, a student at a public school in Virginia, had recently undergone a gender transition. Vlaming, Doe’s French teacher, refused to use male pronouns to refer to Doe. Vlaming argued that using male pronouns to refer to someone who was born a female violated his religious beliefs. Eventually, the superintendent placed Vlaming on administrative leave and recommended his dismissal. After a hearing, the School Board dismissed Vlaming for failure to comply with his superiors’ directives and violations of policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment. Vlaming sued, alleging statutory and constitutional violations and breach of contract. The Board removed the case to federal court, arguing the district court had removal jurisdiction because it had federal question jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. 1441(c), over whether Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The Board also argued that because Title IX, 20 U.S.C. 1681, was a “law providing for equal rights,” section 1443(2), the civil rights removal statute, authorized removal.The district court granted Vlaming’s motion for remand. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Because none of Vlaming’s state law claims necessarily raises a federal issue, federal question jurisdiction is lacking, and section 1441(c) does not provide a basis for removal. The Supreme Court has limited the meaning of a “law providing for equal rights” in section 1443 to only those concerning racial equality. View "Vlaming v. West Point School Board" on Justia Law

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Under the North Carolina Charter School Act, any child eligible to attend a public school may choose to attend a charter school, but no one is required to attend one. North Carolina charter schools are nominally public schools but are operated by private nonprofit corporations and are exempt from statutes applicable to local boards of education. Although charter schools must adopt policies governing student conduct and discipline, the state does not supervise the content of those policies. CDS, a nonprofit corporation, holds a charter to operate Charter Day School in rural Brunswick County, which currently educates over 900 elementary and middle school students. RBA (a for-profit entity) manages day-to-day operations at Charter Day, which operates as a school promoting traditional values. The school adopted a uniform policy. Three female students sued, challenging a requirement that girls wear either skirts, jumpers or skorts, instead of pants or shorts. The complaint cited the Equal Protection Clause and Title IX, 20 U.S.C. 1681. The district court granted the plaintiffs summary judgment on the equal protection claim but held that Title IX did not reach school dress codes. The Fourth Circuit reversed. The charter school was not a state actor when promulgating the dress code and is not subject to an equal protection claim but claims of sex discrimination related to a dress code are not categorically excluded from Title IX's scope. View "Peltier v. Charter Day School, Inc." on Justia Law