Federal appellate court rules school officials, board members entitled to qualified immunity from equal protection claim in peer racial harassment suit
Williams v. Port Huron Sch. Dist., 10-1636 (6th Cir. Jan. 9, 2012)
Abstract: A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in a 2-1 split, has ruled that individual school administrators and school board members are entitled to qualified immunity from a suit brought by a group of African-American students’ parents alleging that the defendants violated the students’ equal protection rights by acting with deliberate indifference to student-on-student racial harassment. The panel’s majority concluded that the students failed to establish a violation of their constitutional rights based on the school administrators’ deliberate indifference to the harassment because they could not show that the administrators’ response “to the harassment or lack thereof [was] clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.”
The majority also found that the individual school board members enjoyed qualified immunity from the suit “because they had no duty to act as individuals.” Specifically, under Michigan law, the board’s duties are imposed on the entire board, rather than on individual members.
Facts/Issues: According to the plaintiffs, African-American students at Port Huron Northern High School (PHNHS) were subjected to constant peer racial harassment by white students during the 2003-2006 time period. The harassment ran the gamut from name-calling, use of the word “nigger,” to displays of the Confederate flag, to several instances of vandalism on school grounds involving racial slurs as graffiti.
From 2003 to 2005, while Cheryl Wojitas was principal, little, if anything, was done to investigate numerous allegations of the use of racial slurs between students or defacement of school property with racially offensive language, despite efforts by students and parents to keep Wojitas and the assistant principals informed of these incidents. In fact, PHNHS failed to produced any records of investigations or disciplinary actions taken regarding any of the incidents that occurred between 2003 and 2005.
However, things began to change in 2005. Michael Jones became the Superintendent of Port Huron School District (PHSD), and Craig Dahlke was hired as principal of PHNHS shortly after the beginning of the 2005 school year. Dahlke took a more proactive stance on racial instances by responding to them immediately, holding student assemblies, and ordering students to remove offensive symbols, such as Confederate flags.
After discovery of racial “hit list,” PHNHS hired a group of management consultants to conduct a study on the learning environment at the school and provide findings and recommendations. In their report, the consultants determined that the racially charged atmosphere developed at Port Huron Northern over an extended period of time and was the result of a series of events, rather than a single episode. The consultants opined that policies regarding student conduct, including racial slurs, were not uniformly enforced by Port Huron Northern staff, and the absence of firm, decisive action encouraged continued harassment.
At the suggestion of the consultant team, Dahlke held three grade-level assemblies at the end of the 2005 – 2006 school year, during which Dahlke reminded the students that everyone should be treated with respect and dignity. Dahlke offered anonymity and protection from retaliation for students who reported violators. Port Huron Northern experienced an increase in reports of violations for the 2006 – 2007 school year. However, the racial slurs and incidents continued that school year.
The plaintiffs, parents or guardians of twelve then-students of PHNHS, filed suit in federal district court alleging that the students were deprived of an equal educational opportunity as the result of “student on student” racial harassment experienced at the school in violation of Title VI, state law, and the Fourteenth Amendment [via Section1983]. The individual defendants filed an interlocutory appeal following the district court’s denial of qualified immunity to them with respect to the plaintiffs’ Section 1983 claim that they violated the students’ right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Ruling/Rationale: The Sixth Circuit panel’s majority reversed the district court’s ruling denying qualified immunity to the principal, superintendent, and the individual school board members, and remanded the case to the district court. In order to determine if the individual defendants were entitled to qualified immunity, the majority noted that it must answer two questions: (1) whether a constitutional right has been violated; and (2) whether that right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violations.
“[T]o demonstrate a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause,” the majority further explained, “Plaintiffs must demonstrate the individual defendants’ racially discriminatory intent with respect to their response to the student on student harassment.” The defendants must have been deliberately indifferent to the reports of the harassment.
In regard to Principal Dahlke, the majority concluded that his actions did not amount to deliberate indifference. It found evidence in the record that the principal made extensive efforts to combat student-on-student racial harassment after being hired as principal, efforts the district court called “significant.” The majority stated: “Given Dahlke’s numerous, varied responses to the racial harassment, he met the low threshold necessary to show that he was not deliberately indifferent to the racial harassment at the school.” “Dahlke was not,” the majority concluded, “deliberately indifferent to the student-on-student racial harassment and therefore, was entitled to summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity.”
The majority, likewise, concluded that Superintendent Jones had not acted with deliberate indifference to the racial harassment, as “Jones [sic] efforts to remedy the longstanding racial harassment at Port Huron Northern were not clearly unreasonable.” He was, therefore, entitled to qualified immunity. Because it found neither Dahlke nor Jones violated the students’ right to equal protection, the majority declined to address the question of whether the right was clearly established.
Turning to the individual school board members, the majority concluded that the plaintiffs had failed to show that they violated a constitutional duty owed to the students. It pointed out that under Section 1983, an individual school board member can only be held liable for failing to act if the law “empowers him with some legal obligation to act.” It found “[n]o such obligation existed in this case because, under Michigan law, the duties of a school board are imposed on the entire board and not on the individual members.”
The dissenting judge agreed “with the district court that, given the facts as pleaded by the [students], a reasonable jury could conclude that Dalke and Jones were deliberately indifferent to the harassment at Port Huron Northern.” The dissent would have upheld the district court’s denial of qualified immunity for the individual board members, as well. “Because this argument [regarding collective rather than individual duty under state law] was not made before the district court, I would hold that it is waived,” the dissenting justice wrote.
Williams v. Port Huron Sch. Dist., 10-1636 (6th Cir. Jan. 9, 2012)
[Editor's Note: In December 2011, Legal Clips summarized a decision by a Minnesota federal district court in Pruitt v. Anderson holding that an African-American student had stated a valid Title VI claim for a racially hostile environment against the school district, but not against the superintendent in his individual capacity. The court rejected the student’s Section 1983 equal protection claim on the ground that it was too vague to provide the defendants with sufficient notice of the alleged unconstitutional conduct.]