Justia Education Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
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Plaintiff, a former student at Oakton High School, filed suit under Title IX against the school board, alleging that her school’s administrators acted with deliberate indifference to reports that she had been sexually harassed by another Oakton student, "Jack Smith." The jury ruled against plaintiff and the district court subsequently denied her motion for a new trial.The Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that a school's receipt of a report that can objectively be taken to allege sexual harassment is sufficient to establish actual notice or knowledge under Title IX—regardless of whether school officials subjectively understood the report to allege sexual harassment or whether they believed the alleged harassment actually occurred. The court further concluded that under this standard, no evidence in the record supports the jury's conclusion that the school board lacked actual notice of Smith's alleged sexual harassment of plaintiff. Accordingly, the court remanded for a new trial. View "Doe v. Fairfax County School Board" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of plaintiff's Title IX claim against the Visitors of Virginia State University and his Fourteenth Amendment claims against a university administrator. Plaintiff's claims arose from an altercation with a former girlfriend in a VSU dormitory.The court adopted the Seventh Circuit's approach, which closely tracks the text of Title IX, asking merely "do the alleged facts, if true, raise a plausible inference that the university discriminated against [the student] on the basis of sex?" By adopting this approach, the court merely emphasized that the text of Title IX prohibits all discrimination on the basis of sex. The court clarified that inherent in this approach is a requirement that a Title IX plaintiff adequately plead causation—that is, a causal link between the student’s sex and the university’s challenged disciplinary proceeding. The court concluded that plaintiff's Title IX claim was properly dismissed where there is no plausible inference that plaintiff's gender was the but-for cause of his treatment under VSU's disciplinary proceedings. Likewise, plaintiff's equal protection claim under 42 U.S.C. 1983 fails for largely the same reasons. In regard to plaintiff's due process claim under section 1983, the court concluded that the administrator is entitled to qualified immunity because there was no clearly established right to continued enrollment in higher education. View "Sheppard v. Visitors of Virginia State University" on Justia Law

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Appellant filed suit on behalf of herself and her minor child, alleging that Principal Foster infringed on the child's First Amendment right to free speech when Foster determined that the child's fourth grade essay regarding the topic of LGBTQ equality was not age-appropriate and should not be included in the class's essay booklet.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's determination that Foster's conduct was a proper exercise of the authority possessed by school officials to regulate school-sponsored student speech, and affirmed the dismissal of the complaint. The court explained that the allegations underlying appellant's amended complaint, even if true, do not substantiate a violation of the child's constitutional rights. Applying Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988), the court concluded that Foster's regulation of the child's speech was reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns because Foster's refusal to include the child's essay in the fourth grade class's essay booklet was actuated at least in part by her concern that the essay's topic was "not age-appropriate" for fourth graders. Furthermore, even assuming, without deciding, that school officials' restrictions on school-sponsored student speech must be viewpoint neutral, the court concluded that appellant has not plausibly alleged that Foster's restriction on the child's speech violated that principle. Finally, although the district court did not comply with procedural requirements before sua sponte dismissing appellant's constitutional claim against the school district, the court concluded that the district court's failure to give appellant these procedural protections does not necessitate reversal because she was not prejudiced by the result. In this case, appellant cannot plausibly demonstrate that a constitutional violation occurred. View "Robertson v. Anderson Mill Elementary School" on Justia Law

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Benjamin was hired as headmaster at the k-12, non-denominational, faith-based Epiphany School. Epiphany community members “evaluated Benjamin on various criteria[,] including ‘Christian Tradition.’” Benjamin, who describes himself as a Quaker of Jewish ethnicity, alleges that he was told by a board member that Epiphany community members did not see him as a “true Christian.” Benjamin’s time at Epiphany was marked by conflicts with students, parents, faculty, and staff. According to Defendants, Benjamin was hostile, inattentive to deadlines, and frequently absent from school events. According to Benjamin, the conflicts were driven by hostility toward his Jewish background, Quaker faith, and efforts to promote diversity. The Board held a forum at which Benjamin gave a speech explaining his religious beliefs. The parties disagree as to whether this speech was voluntary and as to whether Benjamin resigned or was terminated.Benjamin sued, alleging retaliation; discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, and disability; breach of contract, defamation, tortious interference with prospective economic relations; false imprisonment; assault; and violation of the North Carolina School Violence Prevention Act. The district court rejected some claims on summary judgment; a jury rejected the others. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, upholding rulings preventing Benjamin from introducing certain deposition testimony, implementing time limits for each side’s presentation of its case, admitting evidence about Benjamin’s misrepresentations regarding his prior employment, and declining to adopt Benjamin’s proposed jury instructions and verdict form for the breach of contract and defamation claims. View "Benjamin v. Sparks" on Justia Law

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The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 can protect transgender students from school bathroom policies that prohibit them from affirming their gender.Plaintiff, a transgender male, filed suit alleging that the school board's bathroom policy, which excluded him from the boys bathrooms, violated the Equal Protection Clause and constituted discrimination on the basis of sex in violation of Title IX. Plaintiff subsequently amended his complaint to add that the school board's refusal to amend his school records similarly violates both equal protection and Title IX.After rejecting the school board's threshold challenges, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of plaintiff. The court held that the school board's restroom policy constitutes sex-based discrimination and, independently, that transgender persons constitute a quasi-suspect class. Applying heightened scrutiny, the court held that the school board's policy is not substantially related to its important interest in protecting students' privacy. The court also held that the school board's continued refusal to update plaintiff's school records similarly violates his equal protection rights where the school board's decision is not substantially related to its important interest in maintaining accurate records because his legal gender in the state of Virginia is male, not female. In regard to the Title IX claims, the court held that the bathroom policy discriminated against plaintiff on the basis of sex and that plaintiff suffered legally cognizable harm based on the unlawful discrimination. Likewise, the school board's failure to amend plaintiff's school records violated Title IX.Finally, the court noted that the proudest moments of the federal judiciary have been when it affirms the burgeoning values of our bright youth, rather than preserves the prejudices of the past. View "Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board" on Justia Law

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An elementary school student with a disability, and her parents, filed suit challenging the district court's decision to affirm the ALJ's determination that CCPS provided the student with a free appropriate public education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment and held that, although CCPS did violate certain procedural requirements of the IDEA, most notably by changing the student's placement without notifying her parents or modifying her individualized education program (IEP), any procedural violations did not deny the student a FAPE. In this case, the combination of reasonably ambitious goals that were focused on the student's particular circumstances, and that were pursued through the careful and attentive instruction of specialized professionals, provided the education that the student was entitled to under the statute. View "R.F. v. Cecil County Public Schools" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff, a student, filed suit alleging that school officials used statements about Islam to endorse that religion over Christianity and thus compelled plaintiff against her will to profess a belief in Islam. At issue in this appeal was whether two statements concerning Islamic beliefs, presented as part of a high school world history class, violated a student's First Amendment rights under either the Establishment Clause or the Free Speech Clause.The Fourth Circuit held that the challenged coursework materials, viewed in the context in which they were presented, did not violate the student's First Amendment rights, because they did not impermissibly endorse any religion and did not compel the student to profess any belief. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to defendants. View "Wood v. Arnold" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs appealed the district court's dismissal of their civil rights actions under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and 42 U.S.C. 1983, seeking the reinstatement of three claims: a Title IX sex discrimination claim against the University of Mary Washington; a Title IX retaliation claim against UMW; and a section 1983 claim against UMW's former president, Dr. Richard Hurley, for violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the section 1983 claim and held that, at the time of President Hurley's challenged conduct, the equal protection right to be free from a university administrator's deliberate indifference to student-on-student sexual harassment was not clearly established by either controlling authority or by a robust consensus of persuasive authority. The court vacated the dismissal of the retaliation claim insofar as it is premised on UMW’s deliberate indifference to student-on-student retaliatory harassment. The court affirmed the dismissal of the aspect of the retaliation claim that relied exclusively on President Hurley's June 2015 letter. Finally, the panel vacated the dismissal of the Title IX sex discrimination claim against UMW where plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged a sex discrimination claim under Title IX, predicated on UMW's deliberate indifference to the specified student-on-student harassment. View "Feminist Majority Foundation v. Hurley" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff and her daughter filed suit against the county, challenging an in-school Bible lesson program for public elementary and middle school students as violating the Establishment Clause. The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's dismissal of the complaint, holding that plaintiffs have standing because they alleged two actual, ongoing injuries: (1) near-daily avoidance of contact with an alleged state-sponsored religious exercise, and (2) enduring feelings of marginalization and exclusion resulting therefrom. The court also held that plaintiffs' claims were redressable because an injunction would meaningfully redress their injuries. The court also held that the district court erred in treating the temporary suspension of the program as raising ripeness concerns, and plaintiffs' claims were not moot. View "Deal v. Mercer County Board of Education" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, a student and two student groups behind a Free Speech Event at the University of South Carolina, filed suit alleging that University officials violated their First Amendment rights when they required one of the students to attend a meeting to discuss complaints about their event. Plaintiffs also alleged a facial challenge to the University's general policy on harassment, arguing that it was unconstitutionally vague and overly broad.The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment for the University defendants, holding that the University neither prevented plaintiffs from holding their Free Speech Event nor sanctioned them after the fact. Plaintiffs failed to show a credible threat that the University would enforce its harassment policy against their speech in the future, and thus they lacked standing to pursue their facial attack on the policy. View "Abbott v. Pastides" on Justia Law