Education Law Insights

Federal Court Says New York City Schools Can Prohibit “Religious Worship” In School Facilities

Posted by Jackie Wernz on April 7, 2014

As reported in the New York Times, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that a school district could prohibit outside community groups from using school facilities for “religious services” without violating the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The decision is noteworthy because prior U.S. Supreme Court decisions suggested that student and community groups had relatively broad rights to conduct religious activities in school facilities, at least where the school “opened the door” to similarly-situated non-religious groups. The decision is fairly narrow, though, and the reality is that even after the case, most religious activities by student and community groups will be permissible once a forum is “opened” to outside groups. The case does provide strong support for a decision by a school district with legitimate concerns about community perceptions of “religious services” on school grounds to prohibit such services, however, and so is worth a closer look.

The Court’s Decision

In Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York, the Board of Education made New York City’s school facilities available outside of school hours for use by community groups and organizations. The school district “subsidized” the facility use in that it did not charge a fee for such use. The Board was concerned that allowing groups and organizations to hold religious worship services under those circumstances would create the perception that the City was improperly supporting or endorsing religion. Accordingly, the Board prohibited use of the facilities for “religious worship services.”

A religious group sued, arguing that the prohibition violated the First Amendment’s protections of free speech and free exercise of religion by limiting their ability to engage in their religious speech or expression. The group also argued that the rule created an impermissible entanglement with religion in violation of the Establishment Clause, because school leaders would have to determine what was or was not “religious worship services.” The Second Circuit, which is the federal appeals court with jurisdiction over Connecticut, New York, and Vermont, previously addressed and rejected the free speech claim in an earlier appeal. In this case, the court focused on the Free Exercise and Establishment Clause issues.

The Second Circuit held that the Board’s prohibition did not violate the Free Exercise Clause or Establishment Clauses. The court found that the prohibition was content-based and applied equally to all entities conducting religious services without consideration of an entity’s religious viewpoint, and so did not violate the Free Exercise Clause. The court was persuaded by the following facts in finding no violation:

  • The fact that the Board’s policy treats all users, whether religious or secular, the same;
  • The fact that there was no evidence that the Board had an animus against religion generally or any religion that conducted worship services specifically;
  • The fact that the Board had a bona fide and reasonable concern that allowing the free use of school facilities for religious worship would create a substantial risk of a claim that the Board was improperly supporting or endorsing religion in violation of the Establishment Clause; and
  • The fact that the Board’s policy did not prohibit all religious worship by groups in any location, but instead left groups free to conduct worship services wherever they choose other than the Board’s schools.

For many of the same reasons, the court found no violation of the Establishment Clause.

Insights for Educators

 Although the Bronx Household decision is not binding law outside of the Second Circuit, it provides persuasive authority to school leaders who wish to avoid the appearance of improper entanglement with religion by prohibiting religious services on school grounds. Based on the facts of the case, such prohibitions will be strongest where coupled with a bona fide and reasonable fear that there will be a concern about impermissible entanglement with religion if religious services are allowed. Such a concern may be reasonable if, for instance, the facilities are provided for free or other resources are provided by the school to facilities users. If there is a history of animus by school leaders against religion generally or a particular group that conducts religious services, such prohibition will be at greater risk of constitutional challenge.

The decision does not alter the robust rights of student and community groups to use school property for other religious purposes when such property is generally made available for non-religious uses. For instance, it is unquestionable that a student group or outside group or organization can hold meetings involving singing religious songs, reading bible lessons, and memorizing scripture in a public school where school policy allows similarly-situated non-religious groups, such as social, civic, and recreational groups, to do so, as long as those groups comply with relevant school district policies and procedures and relevant laws.

The Bronx Household case is a good reminder of how nuanced and frequently changing this area of law is. School leaders are advised to work closely with legal counsel whenever questions arise about the rights of access religious groups may have to public school facilities so as to avoid a First Amendment constitutional challenge.

How Lessons Learned From “Yik Yak” Can Help You Address The Next Novel Social Media Bullying Trend

Posted by Jackie Wernz on March 10, 2014

The big news in education technology this week is Yik Yak, a free, anonymous social networking application that allows users to post comments that can be seen by others within a 5- to 10-mile radius. The app was intended for use by college students and is described as a localized Twitter for campus communities. But the anonymity of the app allows users to bully others without any risk of identification, and has led to reports of severe bullying in schools across the country. As the Chicago Tribune reported, Yik Yak disabled its app within the Chicago area after at least four schools had to address bullying concerns on the app with their students and parents.

One comment that has repeatedly been made about the recent Yik Yak scandal is that it shows how quickly social media moves and how difficult it is for school administrators to address new issues when they arise. For instance, the Yik Yak app only became popular within the last few months and so was not banned in many schools prior to these recent incidents. And even if banned and blocked through a school’s internet filters, if a school district allows students to access data plans on personal technology devices at school they still can access the app despite the filters and without school officials knowing.

The question arises, then: What can school leaders do to put themselves in the best position to deal with novel social media and technology issues when they arise? Here are a few ideas:

  1. In student handbooks or other informal guidelines, consider specifically banning student use of any social media program or other technology on school grounds or at school-related events and activities for the purpose of bullying other students. Also consider banning such use anywhere if it causes or reasonably could be foreseen to cause a material and substantial disruption to the school environment or invasion of rights of others in the school community. This way, discipline of perpetrators will be allowed even if a new program or technology used for bullying (such as Yik Yak) is not specifically prohibited and, if it is serious enough, even if it occurs off grounds.
  2. Also consider banning student use of data plans on personal technology devices at school. This will limit the circumstances when students can avoid a filter or other screening technology when implemented. It also allows school leaders to monitor student use of websites and technology through the Internet system, which is not possible when a student uses their own data plan.
  3. Educate students, parents, and other members of the school community about the harms that arise from bullying before an incident occurs. Such education should be broad enough to cover types of behavior that are now known or that may occur in the future. Your legal counsel is a good resource for training that meets these needs.
  4. Ensure that technology policies and procedures are up-to-date and broad enough to put the school district in the best position to address novel misconduct by students, staff, and other members of the school district community when it occurs. For school districts in Illinois, Franczek Radelet has a recent technology policy package created for that purpose.

Critical Limitations Soften Blow of Seventh Circuit Decision Voiding Indiana School’s Boys Basketball Hair Length Rule

Posted by Jackie Wernz on February 26, 2014

School districts across the country allow their athletic departments and coaches to regulate student player appearances, including rules requiring male players to wear short hair styles. In a recent decision, Hayden v. Greensburg Community School Corporation, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, struck down such a hair length rule for male basketball and baseball players at an Indiana school. The court found that the rule illegally discriminated against male students. The case is one of the first in decades to address hair length rules in school, and one of the only cases ever to address the important role of such rules in school athletics. Although the decision appears at first blush to be a warning against such rules, a closer look at the decision shows critical limitations that soften its blow. Although the case justifies school leaders taking a close look at hair length rules in male athletics programs, it certainly is not the death knell for such rules when properly designed.

The Court’s Decision

In Hayden, the parents of a middle school basketball player challenged a hair length rule on the boys’ basketball team. According to the coach of the basketball team, the rule was intended to promote team unity and project a “clean cut” image for the team. The student, however, did not “feel like himself” with short hair and alleged that the rule, among other things, discriminated against him based on his gender. The school’s boys’ baseball team had a similar hair length rule, but none of the girls’ teams did.

The Court did not foreclose that a boys’ team could have a hair length rule even if the female team did not have a similar rule. Borrowing a standard from employment discrimination cases dealing with grooming standards, the court assumed (without deciding) that a school may have sex-differentiated standards if they are: (1) in some way justified by community norms; and (2) part of a comprehensive, evenly-enforced grooming code that imposes comparable burdens—if not identical ones—on males and females alike. Applying that standard, the court held that the hair length rule discriminated against male students on the basis of gender based on the second prong of the test.  Although the parties stipulated that female players were subjected to some grooming standards, there were no facts regarding the content of those standards, and so the court could not “assess whether the standards [applied to girls] are comparable, [to those applied to boys], notwithstanding the disparity in the hair-length component of the grooming standards.”

Application by School Leaders 

The Seventh Circuit’s decision, which is one of the first of its kind and one of the first decisions addressing hair lengths in schools in decades, has garnered media attention and warrants a close look at hair length policies in male athletic programs.  But as the summary above shows, there are important limitations necessary to understanding how the case should be applied by school leaders. Specifically, the court did not hold that boys’-only hair length policies are not acceptable in K-12 public schools. Rather, the court suggested that such hair-length policies are acceptable if they are based on relevant community norms and are part of a larger grooming program that includes limitations that are comparably limiting to male and female students.

Notably, it cannot simply be assumed that hair-length policies for boys are based on relevant community norms. The Hayden court questioned whether male hair length standards (which came about decades ago in the 1960s and 1970s) are still relevant community standards today. As the court pointed out, some members of the court “might [even] find themselves in trouble” under such a rule, which prohibited hair worn over the ears, collar, or eyebrows. But as the dissent pointed out, the courts have adopted an extremely deferential view of such questions in the employment context, finding that appearance regulations are defensible if they have some justification in accepted social norms. So school districts should be able to successfully argue that, at least in their communities, hair-length rules for boys are based on relevant community norms.

Care should also be taken to establish that there is an overarching grooming policy that is equally harsh on boys and girls alike. The court provided some examples of questions it might ask to determine if a boys’ hair length policy is part of a larger, consistently-applied grooming program that includes limitations on both male and female students. For example, a court might ask:

  • Are female students prohibited from wearing jewelry?
  • Are female students required to wear their hair in any particular way with the goal of having a neat, clean-cut appearance?
  • Are there limits, other than those on “extreme” hairdos like Mohawks, on how female students can style their hair and are any of those limits based on community norms (e.g., a prohibition on “buzz cuts”)?
  • Are the respective grooming standards enforced evenhandedly between girls and boys?

Although these are just examples, they provide some insight into the types of limitations on female programs that a court might consider when determining if a grooming policy limits boys and girls equally.

Based on this case, school leaders should take a close look at any gender specific grooming policies for their sports teams to ensure that they are based on relevant community standards and that any limitations that apply to only one gender are based on community norms and are part of a comprehensive grooming policy that, as a whole, is equally burdensome on male and female players. If a rule complies with these standards, it will be in the best position to withstand scrutiny even after the Hayden decision.

What School Leaders Really Should Know About the Department of Education’s Guidance on Discriminatory Discipline

Posted by Jackie Wernz on January 15, 2014

Last week, the Department of Education issued a guidance package to help schools administer student discipline without discriminating against students on the basis of race, color, or national origin. The issue of discriminatory discipline is not new; indeed, the Franczek Radelet Education Insights blog warned about the issue early last year. Moreover, the guidance does not create any new law but rather provides information and examples of the Department’s expectations under existing law. Nonetheless, the new guidance is the first national guidance issued on school discipline and likely will be given some deference by courts interpreting the issue, and so is noteworthy and warrants particular attention from school leaders.

The core of the Department’s guidance can be found in a Dear Colleague Guidance Letter (DCL) that was prepared in conjunction with the Department of Justice. The DCL begins with the recognition that discipline is essential for the operation of safe and orderly schools. The DCL then cites statistics showing that discipline in public schools often falls disproportionately on students in minority groups and documents the harms on those students that results. The DCL warns that federal law prohibits discrimination by public schools in the administration of student discipline based on race, color, and national origin, and that the Department will investigate complaints of such discrimination and may require schools to take steps to remedy any issues it finds.

The DCL describes at length and provides examples of the types of discrimination that the Department investigates (“different treatment” discrimination, which is often thought of as intentional discrimination, and “disparate impact” discrimination, which results when there is not necessarily an unlawful intent behind discrimination but it nonetheless leads to an unlawful impact on a particular group). Notably, the DCL makes clear that discrimination can occur at all levels of the disciplinary chain of command, from the decision of a teacher to send a student out of class to the final disciplinary decision by administration. The DCL also clarifies that school districts can be responsible for discrimination not just by employees, but also by agents such as security guards or even law enforcement.

The appendix to the DCL provides recommendations for school districts, administrators, and teachers on how to avoid illegal discriminatory discipline. These recommendations fall into three categories: (1) climate and prevention, (2) clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations and consequences, and (3) equity and continuous improvement. A Guiding Principles document released with the guidance packet provides a succinct summary of these categories:

First, take deliberate steps to create the positive school climates that can help prevent and change inappropriate behaviors. Such steps include training staff, engaging families and community partners, and deploying resources to help students develop the social, emotional, and conflict resolution skills needed to avoid and de-escalate problems. Targeting student supports also helps students address the underlying causes of misbehavior, such as trauma, substance abuse, and mental health issues.

Second, ensure that clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations and consequences are in place to prevent and address misbehavior. By holding students accountable for their actions in developmentally appropriate ways, students learn responsibility, respect, and the bounds of acceptable behavior in our schools and society. This also means relying on suspension and expulsion only as a last resort and for appropriately serious infractions, and equipping staff with alternative strategies to address problem behaviors while keeping all students engaged in instruction to the greatest extent possible.

 Finally, schools must understand their civil rights obligations and strive to ensure fairness and equity for all students by continuously evaluating the impact of their discipline policies and practices on all students using data and analysis.

Another key recommendation is to use law enforcement appropriately. This portion of the DCL and related materials has received significant media attention, including from the ACLU and the Associated Press. As Attorney General Eric Holder explained in a press conference, “A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not a police precinct.” The DCL recommends, among other things, ensuring that school officials only utilize law enforcement when there are major threats to school safety or serious-school-based criminal conduct that cannot safely and appropriately be managed by the school’s internal discipline policies.

Also key are recommendations that schools monitor the impact of discipline policies before a complaint is filed. The DCL recommends that schools collect and use multiple forms of data, including a discipline incident database, regarding discipline incidents and conducting additional investigation where necessary. Notably, the DCL makes clear that schools are responsible for the following: (i) developing and implementing uniform standards for the content of discipline files, (ii) developing and training staff on uniform standards for entry and maintenance of files, and (iii) keeping data on teacher referrals and discipline to assess whether particular teachers may be referring large numbers of students by race for discipline so that follow up with teachers can be taken as needed.

The guidance package includes, in addition to the DCL and the Guiding Principles document, other resources for schools in implementing fair discipline policies. These include a Directory of Federal School Climate and Discipline Resources and a Compendium of School Discipline Laws and Regulations.

 

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like a Lawsuit: The Acceptable Role of Religion in Public School Winter Musical Programs and Toy Drives

Posted by Jackie Wernz on November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving is not yet here, but school districts across the country already are grappling with an important question regarding later, religious holidays like Christmas. The question:  Can religious content be included in winter programming in public schools?

The inclusion of religion-themed content in musical programs and charity drives has been a hot button issue for schools this year. For example, a New Jersey school district recently came under fire for banning all Christian music from its elementary schools’ winter concerts. After pressure from a pro-religion organization, Alliance Defending Freedom, the school district reversed course and said it would allow Christmas songs in the concerts, after all. Similarly, a Colorado school district reportedly broke ties with a Christian organization that collects boxes of toys from students to send to impoverished children overseas. A secular-rights group, the American Humanist Association, fueled the change in policy by challenging the practice through a letter to the school district.

The organizations that either support or challenge the inclusion of religious content in school programming often portray the issue as simple. For instance, the Alliance Defending Freedom recently sent a letter to 13,000 school districts across the country suggesting that the right to include religious content in school musical programs and toy drives is nearly absolute. But as with most constitutional issues in public schools, the reality is that decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis with critical attention to the rights on both sides.

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President Expected to Sign Epi-Pen School Food Allergies Bill

Posted by Jackie Wernz on November 14, 2013

As reported by the Washington Post, President Obama is expected to sign a bill into law encouraging states to require schools to take greater efforts to protect students with food allergies. The bipartisan bill was proposed by Illinois Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) following the deaths of two girls in Illinois and Virginia from severe food allergies.

The bill comes at a time of heightened focus by the media and the government on the issue of childhood allergies. A recent New York Times Sunday Reviewarticle, for instance, delved into the connection between food allergies and the decline of agrarian culture. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued voluntary guidelines for schools regarding managing food allergies in educational programs (more information from the CDC can be found here).

The bill also is in addition to numerous State law requirements for schools regarding allergies. In 2011, for instance, Illinois school districts were first required to implement a food allergy management policy under Illinois law. As one source reports, the Illinois law “allows schools to maintain a supply of epinephrine on site and for school nurses to administer epinephrine to any student suffering from a severe allergic reaction.” The guidelines required under the Illinois law must comport with Illinois State Board of Education and Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines on food allergies that were published in 2010. In all, twenty-seven states reportedly have  laws allowing schools to administer epinephrine to students without a prescription.

The bill would expand on state law by offering a financial incentive to states that require schools to do all of the following:

  1. Allow a wider array of trained school personnel to administer epinephrine to students reasonably believed to be having an anaphylactic reaction;
  2. Maintain a supply of epinephrine in a secure location that is easily accessible to trained personnel of the school for the purpose of administration to any student of the school reasonably believed to be having an anaphylactic reaction; and
  3. Have in place a plan for having on the premises of the school during all operating hours one or more individuals who are trained personnel to administer epinephrine.

Notably, although many students with severe food allergies bring their own epinephrine injectors to school, the bill reportedly nonetheless would help numerous children who do not know they have life threatening allergies. Approximately a quarter of recent administrations of epinephrine in the school setting involved students who were not previously aware of their allergies and so would not have had a personal supply of epinephrine.

If the bill is signed into law, additional state action will be required for the mandates of the bill to reach school districts. Even if a state implements the mandates of the bill, moreover, other issues relating to food allergies in schools – such as specifics of education and training, implementation of individualized health care and food allergy action plans, procedures for responding to life-threatening reactions to food, and protocols to avoid exposure to food allergens – are not covered by the bill and so will remain subject to state law or, where there is none, school district discretion.

Settlement Reached in Case Over Jesus Portrait in Ohio Middle School

Posted by Jackie Wernz on October 17, 2013

In an earlier blog post, we addressed whether an Ohio school district violated the First Amendment by hanging a portrait of Jesus in a middle school.  The portrait allegedly was a gift to the school board by a Christian student club and had been hanging in the school district’s schools since the 1940s. In February, the school board voted to allow the picture to remain despite a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF). The school board said that the portrait is not owned by the school but rather belongs to a Christian student club, and that removing it might violate the First Amendment rights of the students in the club.

The parties reportedly reached a tentative agreement months ago when, in April, the school board took the picture down. The legal fight was rekindled, however, when the ACLU and FFRF learned that the school district continued to keep the portrait in its high school building in an area visible to those entering an art-storage area, and displayed the picture on a school lawn during a prayer meeting. After a flurry of more legal filings, the school district decided to settle, agreeing to remove the picture from its school buildings, to pay each of the anonymous students who brought the complaint $3,000, and to pay the ACLU and FFRF $80,000.

As we pointed out in our earlier blog post, there are a number of key takeaways that school leaders can glean from this case.

Courts are generally skeptical of religious displays, including religious works of art, that appear to be school-sponsored speech unless there is a clear secular purpose behind the display. A secular purpose might include a display including art work from a number of religions or examples of historical figures. A court also may be concerned if only one religion, such as Christianity, is represented. When the religious speech purportedly is that of a student or students, the issue becomes more difficult. Whether it is a posting by a student group, a student submission to a class or contest that includes religious content, student speech with religious undertones at a talent show or a graduation or other assembly, or the reading of prayers by students at a football game, there are a myriad of legal rules and challenges of which school leaders should be aware. The Ohio settlement makes clear that balancing these rules and challenges can be difficult, and sometimes costly.

Medical Marijuana and K-12 Schools: The Straight Dope on How Schools Can Deal

Posted by Jackie Wernz on October 8, 2013

Illinois recently joined twenty other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing medical marijuana. Four other states are considering passing similar legislation in the near future. How do primary and secondary schools adapt when the state allows employees and students to legally possess and use marijuana for medical purposes? The following are a few issues that K-12 schools may face.

Drug Possession and Use

What if an employee or student shows up at school, on a school bus, or at a school-related event with marijuana? Or uses marijuana at those places? When caught, the individual presents a doctor’s prescription for the drug. Is the prescription a get-out-of-jail-free card for school discipline?

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Ninth Circuit Upholds Discipline of Student For Off-Campus, Online Threat of School Shooting

Posted by Jackie Wernz on September 10, 2013

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals joined a growing number of federal courts of appeals that have addressed when public schools can discipline students for off-campus, online misconduct. The case involved multiple threats by a Nevada high school student, made on his own computer on his own time, that he would commit a school shooting. The court held that the school’s discipline of the student did not violate his constitutional rights, but took care to make clear that its holding was limited to threats of serious school violence. The court saved for another day the more difficult issue of when other types of non-threatening off-campus, online misconduct – such as harassment or bullying of staff or other students – can be the subject of school discipline.

The Facts

In Wynar v. Douglas County School District, a student of Douglas High School in Minden, Nevada sent a number of troubling instant messages through MySpace to classmates from his home computer. In the messages, he bragged about having a stockpile of weapons, threatened to shoot and “take out” particular students on the anniversary of the Columbine school shooting, and boasted that his victims would outnumber those in the Virginia Tech shooting – the deadliest school shooting to date. After some of the student’s friends reported the messages to school authorities, school officials interviewed the student, who admitted that he wrote the messages but claimed they were a joke. The school district expelled the student for 90 days for violating a policy against threatening other students. The student sued, arguing that his off-campus speech was protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. (more…)

Can Schools Prohibit “I ♥ boobies” Bracelets . . . Or Not?

Posted by Jackie Wernz on August 28, 2013

This month, two courts issued dramatically different opinions about whether school districts can prohibit breast cancer awareness bracelets reading “I ♥ boobies” without running afoul of students’ First Amendment free speech rights. In both cases, the school districts argued that they could prohibit the speech in the school context based on the 1986 Supreme Court case Bethel School District v. Fraser. In Fraser, the Court upheld the suspension of a high school student for making a speech full of sexual innuendos during a school assembly. The Fraser Court held that the discipline did not violate the student’s First Amendment rights, and that opinion has been interpreted to authorize school discipline of lewd, vulgar, obscene, indecent, or patently offensive speech in the school environment. (more…)