In a suit that has received national attention, the ATLAW Daily Report says a federal judge in Rome, Georgia, has determined that a high school student who hanged himself in 2009 likely was subjected to severe and pervasive bullying throughout his high school career, but that the school system had responded effectively every time school administrators were alerted that the teen had been bullied. U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy granted Murphy County School District’s (MCSD) motion for summary judgment, finding that school administrators had not demonstrated deliberate indifference to the plight of Tyler Long, and had not violated his civil rights by failing to shield him from school bullies.
Tyler’s parents, Tina and David Long, filed suit against MCSD and the high school’s principal in 2010, claiming that the school system was liable for their son’s suicide because he was bullied to death. MCSD’s attorneys countered that Tyler’s psychiatric records, multiple mental health issues, and a suicide note that referred to his personal anguish over his relationship with his parents – not bullying, drove Tyler to suicide.
Judge Murphy did not rule on the ultimate cause of Tyler’s suicide. The judge acknowledged that the evidence supported a finding that the students who allegedly bullied him had subjected Tyler to harassment that was “sufficiently severe and pervasive” that it created “an abusive educational environment.” However, the judge cited a number of decisions by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (which includes federal courts in Georgia in its jurisdiction) in support of his holding that MCSD had no constitutional duty to protect Tyler from harm by private individuals.
Source: ATLAW Daily Report, 5/21/12, By R. Robin McDonald
[Editor's Note: Judge Murphy issued a 186-page opinion in Long v. Murray Cnty. Sch. Dist., supporting his order dismissing the parents' claims against the school district. He first found that they had abandoned their equal protection claim because they failed to address it in their response to Defendants' motion for summary judgment.
The judge also rejected the parents' Section 1983 claim based on an alleged violation of Tyler's substantive due process rights. Judge Murphy found there was no custodial relationship between Tyler and school officials, or a state-created danger that would overcome the general rule that a governmental entity is not liable for the acts of third parties. The judge also concluded that MCSD could not be held liable on the theory that it failed to adequately train its employees and protect Tyler from harassment. Although such alleged conduct may have been negligent, it was not conscience-shocking giving rise to a constitutional claim.
Lastly, Judge Murphy determined that the parents had failed to state a valid claim for disability harassment under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act because they were unable to establish that school officials were deliberately indifferent to the incidents of harassment.
In March 2012, Legal Clips summarized the decision in Doe v. Covington Cnty. Sch. Dist. by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (LA, MS, TX), sitting en banc (all active judges participating in considering and deciding the case), which held that a school district did not have a duty to protect an elementary school student from sexual abuse by a private actor based on the constitutional theory that the school had a special relationship with the student. The Fifth Circuit also rejected the student’s claims alleging a state-created danger and municipal liability.]