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Arizona charter schools’ suit seeks to prevent state from recovering over $5 million in funding it claims it overpaid to charter schools

According to The Republic, the Arizona Charter Schools Association (ACSA) and about 200 of its member schools have filed suit in Maricopa County Superior Court against the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) seeking an injunction to prevent ADE from recouping more than $5 million in classroom-site funds that  the department says it overpaid the schools.  The suit claims ADE wants charter schools to return $5.89 million in Proposition 301 money after the state changed its interpretation of teacher-performance pay.

ACSA president Eileen Sigmund contends ADE’s actions are unconstitutional and would adversely affect schools that have already budgeted their Prop. 301 funds for this school year.  “We’re filing an injunction … to ask a judge and neutral third party to say, ‘Hey, is this allowed?  We were playing by all the rules you gave us, and all of a sudden you’ve changed the rules without telling us, and you’re clawing back the money,’ ” Sigmund said.

Although ADE declined to comment on the suit, ADE’s director of policy development and government affairs Stacey Morley said, “We constantly adjust school-district payments and charter-school payments based on current information and data.  I don’t remember ever being sued because of it.”  Morley added, “The fact is that it’s a finite pot of money that gets distributed to all schools.”

In 2000, Arizona voters approved Prop. 301, which was intended to provide additional funding for teachers based on increased student performance.  The 0.6-cent-per-dollar sales tax is earmarked to pay teachers and provide instructional support in the classroom.  The available money changes each year depending on sales-tax revenue.

In January 2013, ADE officials said they discovered that an error in calculating classroom-site funding had shortchanged hundreds of Arizona public and charter schools while causing others to be overpaid since 2006.  In March 2013 , the department reimbursed about $38 million to the underfunded districts and set up payment plans to recoup about $6 million the state overpaid to charters and school districts.

ADE plans to begin collecting the money, starting this week, over a five-year period.  “We’re trying to balance the fact that we have to take this money back because we feel it wasn’t distributed properly … (with the understanding) that it has an impact on schools, so we spread it out over five years,” Morley said. “I’m happy to have a court tell me if this isn’t correct.  We really just want to try to be fair and reasonable, and we have a responsibility to all the schools in Arizona and the taxpayers to make sure that money gets allocated correctly,” Morley added.

Sigmund said attempts to negotiate with ADE officials since February 2013 have been fruitless.  She said the charter association filed its lawsuit as a last resort.

Source: The Republic, 5/29/13, By Amy B Wang

[Editor’s Note: In January 2013, Legal Clips summarized an article in The Republic reporting that the Arizona Court of Appeals had held that the state legislature must fully pay for the base education budget, something that has not happened for three years.  The three-judge panel effectively told the legislature it cannot pick and choose which parts of a voter-approved school-funding initiative it wants to fund.

Proposition 301, a ballot measure that voters approved in 2000, called for annual inflation adjustments to the base education funding formula, which covers school operating costs and other education spending, such as transportation and extra assistance to state charter schools.  However, in the past three budget years, the legislature paid only for minor elements in the education plan, omitting funding increases to account for inflation.  Lawmakers argued that the “either/or” language in the ballot measure gave them permission to pick and choose which elements to fund, especially in years when the state was trying to erase deep budget deficits.]

Michigan district answers student-on-student sexual assault suit saying school officials proactively responded to complaints

In response to a female student’s sex discrimination suit, mlive.com reports that school administrators at Forest Hills Central High School (FHCHS) claim they acted promptly in a proactive nature to investigate and resolve all reported incidents.  The girl alleges that the school acted “with deliberate indifference” to her being sexually assaulted in a Forest Hills Central band room on Nov. 3, 2010, when she was 15.  In its legal filing responding to the suit, the district says schools administrators worked to support the female student and prevent retaliation against her.

In a report to the court, the school district’s attorney Catherine Tracey wrote, “In addition to the more proactive measures described above, district officials encouraged the plaintiff and her parents to promptly report any problems she had at school so that they could be investigated and resolved.”  She also stated that the student’s “parents rarely reported any incidents where plaintiff was mistreated by (suspect, Marques Mondy) or other students, but when they did, the district investigated and as appropriate, took remedial action.”

The student, identified as Jane Doe, filed a federal lawsuit against the school district, Superintendent Daniel Behm, former principal Terry Urquhart, and former assistant superintendent and Title IX coordinator Anne Edsenga.  In addition to alleging that the school acted “with deliberate indifference” to her being sexually assaulted on campus, the suit claims that the school’s response subjected the girl to “further sexual harassment and a hostile environment, effectively denying her access to educational opportunities.”

The student’s attorney claims Mondy, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery, received preferential treatment because he was a good athlete and a school-of-choice student.  The school district said he was an in-district student and noted he was suspended for the entire basketball season.

The district said the principal, upon being informed of the allegations, contacted Kent County sheriff’s deputies to investigate and called the girl’s parents.  He and other administrators began reviewing surveillance video and interviewed students and a janitor who were in the area where the assault took place.  The principal also called another female student into his office after he heard rumors that Mondy made unwanted sexual advances to her.  She did not want to pursue charges.

Source: mlive.com, 7/26/13, By John Agar

[Editor’s Note: In June 2013, Legal Clips summarized an article on mlive.com reporting that the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (OCR) cited the Forest Hills school district for failing to follow up on two separate sexual harassment and assault claims lodged against Marques Mondy.  School Superintendent Daniel Behm described the OCR report as giving an incomplete picture of what occurred.  “The only thing I would say about the report is, the Office of Civil Rights never interviewed our Title IX coordinator and they never interviewed me.  We certainly played a role in making decisions about the whole matter – we played a significant role.” Nonetheless, the OCR investigation lead to a resolution agreement imposing numerous requirements on the district.  The OCR investigation determined that Forest Hills’ procedures for responding to sex discrimination complaints were not effective and did not comply with Title IX.] 

Nevada school district loses effort to dismiss student’s claim that discipline for off-campus Twitter speech violated First Amendment

Rosario v. Clark Cnty. Sch. Dist., No. 13-362 (D. Nev. Jul. 3, 2013)

Abstract: A former Nevada public school student filed a 10 count lawsuit in federal court against his school district claiming that discipline he received because of off-campus tweets violated numerous rights, including his First Amendment right of free speech.  The school district filed a motion to dismiss arguing that the tweets were not entitled to First Amendment protection because they are obscene and that schools may regulate off-campus student speech that causes a substantial disruption on campus.

The court granted the school district’s motion to dismiss with regard to seven   of the student’s claims, including his Fourth Amendment search claim, Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim, and Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process claim.  The court denied the motion to dismiss with regard to other claims, most importantly the First Amendment claim.

The court acknowledged that while courts have found that school officials can discipline students for off-campus speech on social media websites, the ability of officials to impose punishment depends on the facts.  It also noted that the scope of the school district’s cyberbullying policy, which formed the basis for the student’s discipline, had not been interpreted under circumstances like those in the present case.  As a result, it concluded that the issue should be decided on the merits.  The court did agree that one of eight tweets was obscene as a matter of law and therefore not entitled to First Amendment protection.

Facts/Issues: Juliano Rosario was a member of the boys varsity basketball team at Desert Oasis High School in the Clark County School District (CCSD) . After the last game of the season, Rosario made several comments on his Twitter account about school officials while having dinner with his family at an off-campus restaurant.  He made eight profanity laced tweets about four school officials (coaches and administrators).

Those officials filed a discipline complaint against Rosario, charging him with violating CCSD’s cyberbullying policy (NRS 388.135), which states:

A member of the board of trustees of a school district, any employee of the board of trustees, including, without limitation, an administrator, principal, teacher or other staff member, or any pupil shall not engage in bullying, cyber-bullying, harassment or intimidation on the premises of any public school, at an activity sponsored by a public school or on any school bus.

Rosario was initially suspended or expelled (the record is unclear which), but following an appeal he was reassigned to another high school in CCSD. Rosario and his father filed suit in federal district court, seeking an injunction to return Rosario to Desert Oasis High.  The court denied the injunction request.

The plaintiffs then filed the present suit, raising ten causes of action, including a First Amendment free speech claim, Fourth Amendment search claim, and Fourteenth Amendment equal protection and procedural process claims. CCSD filed a motion to dismiss all claims.

Ruling/Rationale: The district court dismissed seven of the claims without prejudice, meaning those claims can be amended and refiled.  Among the claims dismissed were the Fourth Amendment search claim, the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim, and the Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process claim.

The court, however, did not dismiss Rosario’s First Amendment claim.  CCSD had sought dismissal arguing that: (1) Rosario’s tweets were not entitled to First Amendment protection because they are obscene; and (2) schools may regulate off-campus student speech that causes a substantial disruption on campus.

Of Rosario’s 8 tweets, 7 contained profanity, mostly directed at named school officials.  With respect to one of Rosario’s tweets, the court accepted CCSD’s argument that the message was not entitled to First Amendment protection because it was obscene.  That tweet read: “I hope Coach brown gets f*ck*d in tha *ss by 10 black d*cks.”  However, the court found that while the other 7 tweets might be racist, violent, offensive, and hateful they did not satisfy the legal definition of obscenity.

The court accepted the legal argument underlying CCSD’s second basis for dismissal, that schools may regulate off-campus student speech that causes a substantial disruption on-campus, but concluded that factual uncertainties precluded a dismissal at this juncture.  Citing Kowalski v. Berkeley Cnty. Schs., 652 F.3d 565 (4th Cir. 2011), the court stated: “It is well-established that schools may discipline students for off-campus speech in certain situations.” The court cited a number of decisions from other federal circuits that have addressed the issue of a school’s ability to discipline students for off-campus speech on social media websites.  It said that the following test has emerged:

 [S]chool officials have the authority to discipline students for off-campus speech that will foreseeably reach the campus and cause a substantial disruption.  S.J.W. ex rel. Wilson v. Lee’s Summitt R-7 Sch. Dist. , 696 F.3d 771, 777 (8th Cir. 2012); J.S. ex rel Snyder v. Blue Mountain Sch. Dist. , 650 F.3d 915 (3d Cir. 2011); Kowalski v. Berkeley Cnty. Schs., 652 F.3d 565 (4th Cir. 2011); Doninger v. Niehoff, 527 F.3d 41, 48 (2d Cir. 2008); Wisniewski v. Bd. of Educ. of Weedsport Cent. Sch. Dist., 494 F.3d 34, 38-39 (2d Cir. 2007).

Referencing Layshock ex rel. Layshock v. Hermitage Sch. Dist., 650 F.3d 205 (3d Cir. 2011), the court added that “[s]ome courts also require that a sufficient nexus exist between the off-campus student speech and the disruption at school.”

Because of the crucial role that the facts play in applying this standard, the court concluded that the question of disciplining Rosario for his off-campus tweets would best be resolved on the merits.

The court also dismissed Rosario’s Fourth Amendment search claim that school officials improperly accessed his Tweeter account, which he had set up as a private account.  When a Twitter user maintains a private setting, then only his or her followers may read the user’s tweets.  The school officials were not followers of Rosario.  Instead, they accessed Rosario’s tweets via one of his follower’s accounts.  The court found that method of search and retrieval constitutional, stating: “[I]t is well-established that when a person shares information with a third party, that person takes the risk that third person will share it with the government.  United States v. Choate, 576 F.2d 165, 175 (9th Cir. 1978).”

Rosario v. Clark Cnty. Sch. Dist., No. 13-362 (D. Nev. Jul. 3, 2013)

[Editor’s Note: In June 2013, Legal Clips summarized an article on Syracuse.com reporting that Patrick Brown, a senior at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, was suspended after he posted on Twitter about the district’s failed 2013-14 school budget.

In March 2013, Legal Clips summarized an article by the Student Press Law Center reporting that the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU-WA) had sent a letter to Everett School District’s superintendent, charging that a student at North Middle School was forced to log onto her Facebook account so that the vice-principal could view it.  The ACLU-WA letter contends that the vice-principal’s actions amounted to an illegal search that has resulted in other students harassing the student.] 

New Hamphire school board votes to sue city council to prevent council’s removal of board members

The Franklin School Board has voted 5-3, says the Concord Monitor, to file suit in an attempt to prevent the council from removing any school board members from office.  At issue are two petitions, each with 100 signatures, calling for the ouster of school board Chairman Ray Yonaitis and board member Kathleen Russo that were filed with the council after the board fired football coach Greg Husband.

The council plans to hold a hearing on the petition at the end of July.  The board’s suit will seek an injunction to stop the council from taking action and a ruling that the council has no authority to remove school board officers.

The school board’s attorney, Melissa Hewey, said the board would give the council time to respond in hopes of avoiding a court date.  But if the council maintains that it has authority, the suit will be filed in Merrimack County Superior Court by the beginning of next week.

The council has not declared an intention to remove Yonaitis and Russo but says it is following the city’s administrative code by scheduling a hearing on the petitions.  That code says the council must at least hear grievances of any petitioner to remove a municipal officer.  “All that the council has done to this point is to set up a public hearing to hear the grievances of citizens,” Mayor Ken Merrifield said.  “We could set up a public hearing for any purpose, and it seems to me that this is a bit premature.”

Despite the board’s decision to take legal action against the city, Yonaitis said he hopes the city and school board can work together on other issues.  “The legal action we are taking is a principle of law and not a reflection of personalities,” he said in an email.

The lawsuit argues that the city’s administrative code doesn’t override the board’s own removal policies.  School board policies, based on state statutes, say the only way members can be removed is if they violate laws regarding school finances or knowingly divulge nonpublic information.  The city’s administrative codes say its removal process takes hold “unless otherwise provided for by ordinance or statute.”

According to the suit: “If the Council had authority to remove School Board members, this power would negate the election process, and essentially give the Council absolute power over the school district.”  The school’s attorneys also argue that if the city code did apply to removal of board members, the petitioner or council would need to state just cause.

The two petitions do not state a specific reason for removal, but it’s well known that the petitioners did not agree with the board’s decision to fire the football coach.  “Just cause does not exist merely because the citizens of Franklin or the Council disagree with a School Board member’s position regarding non-renewal of the football coach,” the suit says.

The draft lawsuit also requests the city council pay for the board’s legal fees. Filing the injunction will cost between $5,500 and $7,000.

Source: Concord Monitor, 7/19/13, By Kathleen Ronayne

[Editor’s Note: In March 2013, Legal Clips summarized an article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporting that a federal court had refused to prevent the replacement of six DeKalb County school board members who lost their seats over a threatened loss of accreditation.]

Rhode Island Supreme Court holds teachers’ union lacks standing to arbitrate dispute for retirees

Providence School Board v. Providence Teachers Union, Local 958, AFT, AFL,-CIO, No. 2012-147-Appeal (June 19, 2013)

Abstract: The Rhode Island Supreme Court held that the Providence Teachers Union (Union) lacked standing to bring a grievance to arbitrate on behalf of retirees concerning a dispute over the difference in the increase of health insurance premium costs for retirees as compared with the low increase in premium costs for active employees.  The Court found that the Union lacked standing where the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) plainly excluded retirees from 1) the bargaining unit, 2) the jurisdiction of the Union, and 3) the term “teacher” as used in the CBA.  Furthermore, active duty employees and retirees lacked a “community of interests.”

Facts/Issues: The Providence School Board provides health insurance to both active employees and retirees.  Since 1989, underwriters developed working rates that were calculated by combining all active employees and retirees in a single group.  In September 2004, active teachers and retirees began contributing to the health insurance costs under the plan and any increase in premium costs was applied equally to active employees and retirees.  Then in the summer of 2006, the underwriters separated active employees and retirees into two groups for purposes of calculating the working rates. Premiums for active employees increased by approximately 10 percent, while premiums for retirees increased by approximately 55 percent.  The School Department Controller said the difference in increases was due to the fact that retirees used the system at a much higher rate than other groups.

In response, the Union filed a grievance in September 2006 on behalf of the retirees contending that the Board’s action violated three provisions of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA).  The dispute was submitted to arbitration.  The arbitrator ruled in favor of the Union, finding that the Union had standing to pursue the grievance and that the Board violated the CBA by failing to include retirees and active employees in a single group when it calculated the healthcare premium rates.  The arbitrator ordered the Board to recalculate premiums using the unified group and make whole the retirees and spouses for any extra premium charges.  The Board moved to vacate the arbitration award in the Superior Court.

The Superior Court vacated the arbitration award, finding that under Arena v. City of Providence, 919 A.2d 379 (R.I. 2007) the Union did not have standing to pursue a grievance on behalf of the retirees, and that the arbitrator exceeded his powers by concluding to the contrary.  The Superior Court also concluded that the issue was not arbitrable because the CBA was silent on how the group premium rate was to be calculated.  The Union appealed the decision to the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

Ruling/Rationale: The Rhode Island Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling, holding that the Union had no standing to pursue the grievance and arbitration on behalf of the retirees.  The Court stated that “arbitration is a matter of contract and a party cannot be required to submit to arbitration any dispute which he has not agreed to submit,” quoting its own precedent  in Sacco v. Cronstan School Department, 53 A.3d 147, 150 (R.I. 2012).

The Court cited three reasons, each based on the language of the CBA, for its conclusion that the Union lacked standing to pursue a grievance on behalf of retirees:

Under the CBA between the parties, “[t]he [b]oard recognize[d] the [u]nion as the exclusive bargaining representative for all those persons in the bargaining unit which consists of all certified teaching personnel, long-term substitute teachers, long-term substitute teachers in-pool, home visitors, social workers and nurses but which excludes all administrators and per diem substitute teachers.” Retirees are not included within the bargaining unit.  Similarly, the CBA provides that “[t]he jurisdiction of the [u]nion shall include those persons now or hereafter who perform the duties or functions of the categories of personnel in the bargaining unit.” (Emphasis added by Court.)  Clearly, retirees are not “persons now or hereafter” who perform these duties, and, therefore, are not within the union’s jurisdiction under the CBA.  Finally, the CBA defines the term “teacher” in a way that excludes retirees: “The term ‘teacher’ as used in this [CBA] means a person employed by the [b]oard in the bargaining unit as described in Article 1.”  Retirees are, by definition, no longer “employed by the [b]oard.”  In short, then, no provision of the CBA purports to authorize the union to pursue a grievance on behalf of retirees.

The court further based its conclusion on the lack of  a “community of interests” between retirees and current employees.  The union, which is recognized in the CBA to represent active teachers, and the school board could conceivably come to an agreement that would adversely affect the retirees in order to benefit current teachers.  The court found factual support for its conclusion that active employees and retirees did not share a “community of interests” in the school controller’s rationale for raising retiree premiums more than employee premiums.  The court concluded:

[B]ecause the union had no standing to pursue this particular grievance, the grievance was not arbitrable.  In concluding otherwise, the arbitrator exceeded his powers.  See State (Department of Administration) v. Rhode Island Council 94, A.F.S.C.M.E., AFL-CIO, Local 2409, 925 A.2d 939, 944 (R.I. 2007) (“An arbitrator exceeds his or her powers if the arbitrator decides an issue that is not arbitrable.”).  Confronted with the board’s motion, the trial justice was obligated to vacate the award.  See id. (“If the dispute is non-arbitrable, then the award must be vacated in accordance with G.L. 1956 § 28-9-18(a)(2).”); see also State Department of Corrections v. Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, 866 A.2d 1241, 1247 (R.I. 2005).

Providence School Board v. Providence Teachers Union, Local 958, AFT, AFL,-CIO, No. 2012-147-Appeal (June 19, 2013)

Editor’s Note: Economic constraints have forced many school districts to reduce retiree health benefits or shift costs to retirees. Typically not formally unionized, these retirees often look to their former employee organizations to represent their interests.  

In September 2010, Legal Clips summarized a Star Advertiser article reporting that Hawaii public school teachers had filed a lawsuit in state court to block changes in their health coverage, alleging that the state’s plan to do away with their health benefit trust fund is unconstitutional.  

Iowa court orders school board to disclose portions of minutes of closed meeting to plaintiff in open meeting lawsuit

Polk County  District Court Judge Nancy Romano has ordered the Des Moines School Board to hand over  portions of minutes from a closed board meeting to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), says the Des Moines Register. The court said members of the Des Moines school board veered off topic at “several points” during a meeting that was officially closed to discuss the resignation of former superintendent Nancy Sebring.

The school district has 10 days to provide minutes from those portions of the meeting to the ACLU, which filed a lawsuit against the board on behalf of former board member Graham Gillette.  A trial date is set for September 2013.

If Gillette is successful in that case — which seeks to prove that the meeting was closed illegally — the information would become public, ACLU attorney Randall Wilson said.  Wilson said he would reach out to the school district’s attorney in the case, Andrew Bracken, to discuss the implications of the ruling.

The court found there were several points in the meeting when other matters not directly related to the stated reason for the closed session were briefly discussed.  But the judge also noted that “the majority” of the conversation during the meeting “related to the stated reason for the closed session.”

Attorney Drew Bracken, who is representing the school board, said that statement shows the board was justified in calling a closed session meeting. “The court has now ruled that the closed session was appropriate; it ruled that 80 percent of that material that they wanted is not subject to their review at all,” Bracken said. “So, in that respect, I think the court has vindicated the actions of the board so far in that the ACLU can only look at a small portion of the minutes.”

Source: Des Moines Register, 7/19/13, By Mary Stegmeir

[Editor’s Note: In the Polk County District Court’s opinion, it stated that: “[T]he above disclosure is only to the party seeking enforcement, and is not a public disclosure.  The parties are prohibited from any re-dissemination of the ordered disclosure without further authorization and order of this court.”

In September 2012, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Des Moines Register reporting on the ACLU’s suit against the board seeking disclosure of the meetings in question.]

North Carolina district seeks unitary status while plaintiffs allege district has resegregated in closely watched trial

Trial is set to begin in a suit by parents claiming a North Carolina school district’s 2011 student assignment plan has effectively resegregated several schools in the district, reports the Associated Press (AP) in the & newsobserver.com.  The case of  Everett v. Pitt County Board of Education (PCBOE) has been brought in federal district court by the UNC Center for Civil Rights (UNCCCR) on behalf of a group of African-American parents.

However, PCBOE is asking the court to rule that the district has achieved “unitary status,” meaning the “vestiges of past discrimination have been eliminated to the extent practicable.”  The designation would end federal oversight of the Pitt County schools, in place since the 1960s.  This case is the first of its kind brought in North Carolina since 1999.  More than 100 school districts across the South are still under federal court supervision.  The decision in the Pitt case is expected to be widely followed by those other school systems.

Mark Dorosin, the managing attorney for the UNCCCR, said the case is a critical test of the continued viability of one of the most fundamental principles of school desegregation: That school districts still under court order must remedy the lasting vestiges of racial discrimination.  “These districts can’t just rely on the passage of time and wait out these orders, they must develop and implement policies that remedy the continuing legacy of racial disparities in all aspects of their schools,” Dorosin said.  “Once a district is declared unitary and the desegregation order is lifted, although school administrators can still utilize race conscious measures to ensure diverse schools, few are willing to do so.  The sad reality is that, as a result, many districts quickly resegregate.”

Nearly half of the more than 23,000 students in the Pitt County schools are black, while about 38% are white, according to statistics from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.  In late 2010, the district approved a school assignment plan for 2011-12 that left several schools with a high percentage of minority students.  That plan was opposed by the Pitt County Coalition for Educating Black Children, the plaintiffs in the current lawsuit.

Respomding to the suit, PCBOE contends that the school system as a whole is racially balanced to the “fullest extent practicable.”  Though they concede a few schools are “imbalanced,” the system says that is the result of “demographic change or geographic isolation and not illegitimate action.”

In a brief filed in the suit, PCBOE argues: “The board no longer operates any school that could be accurately labeled a ‘one race’ school.  New school construction and renovations have been distributed throughout the county so that minority students have benefited equally from modern, functional facilities.”

Source: & newsobserver.com, 7/22/13, By AP

[Editor’s Note: In June 2013, Legal Clips summarized an article in The Augusta Chronicle reporting that U.S. District Court Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. has issued an unusual order to all attorneys and parties involved in a 49 year-old desegregation lawsuit against the Richmond County school system. Judge Bowen has ordered both sides to appear in court in order for each side to present reasons to convince the judge that the desegregation case should remain open – else it will be closed.

In May 2013, Legal Clips summarized a decision by a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (MI, OH, KY, TN) three-judge panel in Spurlock v. Fox holding that a Tennessee school district’s student assignment plan does not violate African-American students’ Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights.  The panel concluded  that the plan does not classify students by race, and that there was no segregative intent which would have shown de jure segregation.  Applying a rational basis review, it found that the district had provided a legitimate state interest for the plan, namely to address the problem of school building under-utilization.]

New York education commissioner bars district from renting school at below market rates

The Jewish Week reports that a ruling by New York State Education Commissioner John King means that Yeshivat Avir Yakov, a chasidic school, will no longer be permitted to lease the former Hillcrest Elementary School building from the East Ramapo Central School District at below-market prices. In upholding a petition filed against the school district and annulling the lease, King said, “I cannot find, on this record, that the [School] Board took reasonable steps to ensure that it was getting the best deal possible.”

In his ruling, King also ordered that “prior to disposing of school district property by either sale or lease, the Board take all steps necessary to ensure that it makes a reasonably informed decision, and obtains the best deal possible, including taking any and all reasonable steps to assess the property’s fair market value or fair market rental value.”

District parent Steven White, who is leading a lawsuit against the East Ramapo school board, said that the ruling “substantiates the primary complaint in our civil rights lawsuit: that the school board is illegally diverting resources from public education to support the yeshivas.”

The majority of the school board members, like the majority of voters in the school district, are Orthodox Jews whose own children attend yeshivas, rather than public schools.  In recent years, they have made major cuts to the public schools’ programs.

Source: The Jewish Week, 7/18/13, By Julie Wiener

[Editor’s Note: New York state has a number of predominantly hasidic communities where most of the students attend private religious schools (yeshivas).  In 2001, Legal Clips summarized a New York Times article reporting that Justice John McGuirk, of the New York State Supreme Court, ruled that Kiryas Joel might be entitled to a school district of its own under a state law passed in 1999.  Kiryas Joel is an Hasidic enclave in Orange County where most of the 5,000 children attend private yeshivas. Despite the fact that state and federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court in 1999, have ruled against the creation of a special district in Kiryas Joel, the village has continued to operate its public school for disabled students.  It has done so by obtaining a series of temporary court orders. Please noted that only COSA members will be able to access this archived Legal Clips summary.]

African-American student’s suit against Tennessee district alleges racially-based harassment and bullying by Spanish teacher

The parents of a Portland High School (PHS) student have filed a federal lawsuit against the Sumner County Board of Education, claiming their son was the victim of ongoing, racially motivated harassment and bullying by a teacher, says The Tennessean.  The suit alleges the school system was negligent in its duty to protect the young man, an African-American, and violated his civil rights by depriving him of equal access to educational opportunities.

The parents’ suit claims their son suffered “mental anguish, humiliation and embarrassment” as the target of “groundless accusations and racially derogatory comments” made last year by Julieta Lopez-Starr, a Spanish teacher at Portland High School.  The family is seeking $500,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

According to the suit, Lopez-Starr regularly referred to the young man and other black students as “monkeys” and said to him, “You need to sit at the front of the class because you look like a problem student.”  The parents claim to have met with then-principal Bob Gideon in September 2012 to express their concerns about Lopez-Starr’s treatment of their son and discuss the unusual number of “write-ups” he had received in her class.  Gideon was “dismissive” of the parents’ concerns, the suit claims.  Following the meeting, Lopez-Starr resumed making racially derogatory remarks toward the young man, accusing him of being “slow,” “ignorant” and “stupid,” according to the suit.  The complaint further accuses Lopez-Starr of showing favoritism toward Hispanic students and discriminating against black students.

According to the lawsuit, the mother of the student in November 2012 reported the incidents to Glee Moore, high school instructional coordinator for Sumner County Schools.  The father met with Gideon again in March 2013 about the teacher’s treatment of his son, the suit claims.

The lawsuit alleges Lopez-Starr was “prone to spontaneous outbursts of hysterical anger and yelling,” and some students captured video of the teacher’s outbursts and presented it to Gideon.  “Mr. Gideon preserved one of these videos and instructed the students to erase them from their phones,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit further claims Lopez-Starr has “a prior history of similar complaints from parents regarding her conduct as a teacher at other schools within the Sumner County School system” before she was assigned to PHS.  A review of Lopez-Starr’s file indicates she was hired by Sumner County Schools in 2011 to teach Spanish at Westmoreland High School (WHS).  In her file was a Dec. 19, 2011 letter from WHS Principal Rick Duffer admonishing Lopez-Starr for an incident in which she “lost control” of her emotions in class and used “poor judgment in reacting to a disorderly student.”  As a result, Lopez-Starr was required to complete additional training for classroom management. Lopez-Starr resigned from her position at WHS in March 2012 and began teaching at PHS in late August of the same year.  Jeremy Johnson, spokesman for Sumner County Schools, declined to discuss pending litigation but said Lopez-Starr, a non-tenured teacher, was not rehired by the district at the end of the 2012-13 school year.

The harassment of the student was “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that, when taken in conjunction with the deliberate indifference of (Sumner County Schools) it effectively deprived him of equal access to educational opportunities and benefits provided by the school,” the suit claims. Though Sumner County Schools has a policy that spells out procedures for making and following up on complaints made about school personnel, the suit alleges school officials failed to abide by the policy when the the parents made repeated complaints about Lopez-Starr.

Attorney Larry Crain, who is representing the family, said the case is unique in that it involves a teacher bullying a student rather than peer-on-peer bullying. “What makes it egregious to me is that these acts were done by a teacher who apparently had a history of similar outbursts with other students at other schools,” Crain said.

Source: The Tennessean, 7/17/13, By Jennifer Easton

[Editor’s Note: In January 2013, Legal Clips summarized an article by the Pennsylvania Record reporting that Samantha Pawlucy, a student at Charles Carroll High School, has filed suit against the Philadelphia School District claiming a violation of her free speech rights.  Pawlucy’s suit alleges that her geometry teacher, Lynette Gaymon, harassed her because she was wearing a Romney-Ryan T-shirt.

In October 2012, Legal Clips summarized an article in The Examiner reporting that  Fred Lane, the father of a Blue Springs South High School sophomore basketball player, Cloe Lane, who is black, is suing the Blue Springs School District in Jackson County Circuit Court, citing racial discrimination, harassment, retaliation and civil rights violations, and is seeking punitive damages.]

Former student sues Washington school district alleging sexual orientation discrimination

According to Komonews.com, Keelie Shay, a former student of Kamiak High School, filed a lawsuit against the Mukilteo School District alleging that school employees discriminated against her because of her sexual orientation.  The lawsuit was just filed, but the alleged discrimination started 4½ years ago. Keelie Shay says she was a starter on the girls’ junior varsity basketball team – but that all changed after she told her coaches she’s a lesbian in a relationship with a fellow teammate.  Shay says coaches reduced her playing time, removed her from being a starter – and even told her she couldn’t join in the off-season practice.  Shay alleges it got so bad that she “had no alternative but to flee the discrimination and transfer to another school,” according to the suit.

The Mukilteo School District declined to say anything about the issue, citing pending litigation.

Source: Komo News, 7/11/13, Lindsay Cohen.

[Editor’s Note: In June, 2013 Legal Clips summarized Glowacki v. Howell Pub. Sch. Dist., No. 11-15481 (E.D. Mich. Jun. 10. 2013), in which a Michigan federal district court held that a high school teacher who removed a student from class for making religious-based anti-gay comments during a classroom discussion about bullying violated the student’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

In April 2012, Legal Clips summarized an article in The Orange County Register reporting that Fullerton Union High School Vice Principal Joe Abell had been temporarily removed from his position after he disqualified a gay student from the “Mr. Fullerton” pageant.  Abell disqualified Kearian Giertz from the pageant when Giertz was asked where he saw himself in 10 years, and answered that he hoped to find the love of his life, marry him, and hoped gay marriage would be legal.] 

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