A lawsuit filed by a California teacher against the school district where she works puts a new spin on an old problem. As the National School Boards Association reported, the suit, filed last week by Amy Sulkis in the Los Angeles Superior Court, alleges that her school district employer failed to adequately protect her from cyberbullying and online sexual harassment by students who, among other things, created a fake Twitter account in her name and sent out inappropriate Tweets. Legal scholarship has long recognized that although liability for student-on-student and teacher-on-student harassment has led to successful lawsuits against public schools, courts have been less inclined to extend protections to teachers who allege they are harassed by students. Sulkis’s lawsuit shows how these concerns can be compounded by the use of online social media such as Twitter, and creates a new wrinkle in the question of what schools are required to do when teachers complain about online harassment by students.
According to CBS Los Angeles, Sulkis’s lawsuit reportedly alleges that the 16-year teaching veteran had an unblemished record and relationship with students until, in 2013, students created a false Twitter account in her name and sent out “disparaging and sexually suggestive statements” about her. A student who admitted to creating the account was initially given a two-day suspension, but after negotiations with the administration it was reduced to one day. Subsequently, students posted inappropriate and derogatory posts about Sulkis, but when Sulkis reported those posts to the administration she was told there was no available recourse. According to Sulkis, although she and her attorney asked for school-wide training for students on proper use of social media, that request was denied. A later post by a student allegedly included an image of Sulkis, an offensive caption, and a link to a pornographic Twitter page. Sulkis alleged that she was forced to take time off work to deal with the emotional distress and because she did not feel safe in her work environment. The lawsuit followed shortly thereafter. (more…)
With Guest Blogger Kendra Yoch
In a recent decision, Elonis v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court held that in order to convict a man for alleged threats made against his wife on Facebook, the prosecutor must show some level of intent. It was not enough to show that a reasonable person would have believed the man’s comments to be a “true threat.” There are strong arguments that this criminal case did not change the standard for schools to address student, staff, or community member social media comments in the school environment. However, school leaders should be ready for challenges by individuals disciplined or otherwise sanctioned for such comments based on arguments similar to those raised in Elonis.
Anthony Douglas Elonis was convicted under a federal law prohibiting communication of any threat to injure the person of another. After his wife had left him and taken their children, he began posting graphically violent rap lyrics on Facebook under the pseudonym Tone Douggie. Elonis posted disclaimers that the lyrics were fictitious, therapeutic, and an exercise of is First Amendment rights. But his wife took the threats seriously and obtained a restraining order. The lyrics included a question as to whether the restraining order was “thick enough to stop a bullet,” references to smothering his wife with a pillow and dumping her body in a creek, and, perhaps the most troubling reference for school leaders, the following: (more…)
Those who follow the intersection between special education and technology know there is a dearth of administrative decisions and case law addressing what, if any, responsibility school districts have to provide or otherwise pay for technology for special education students. A recent administrative decision from Massachusetts sheds some light on this murky area. The case was unique because rather than addressing whether a device was “assistive technology” necessary to provide the student a free, appropriate public education (FAPE), it was looking at whether the district had complied with a hearing officer decision requiring it to reimburse for tuition and related expenditures for a unilateral private residential placement. Nonetheless, because the case addressed when technology might be an essential part of a special education student’s program, it’s worth a read for school leaders who deal with these issues.
The case involved a highly intelligent special education student with Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, and related issues. In an earlier administrative decision, a hearing officer found that the student’s school district, Barnstable Public School, was required to reimburse the student’s parents for their unilateral placement of the student at a private residential school, Franklin Academy, which the student began attending after the parents disagreed with the school district’s proposed high school placement for the student. Following that decision, Barnstable reimbursed the parents in full for tuition payments they made to Franklin Academy and expressed willingness to reimburse the parents for certain transportation expenses. The school district disputed, however, whether it was required to pay the parents for numerous “related expenses,” including certain technology expenses. Specifically, the parents asked for $11,224 for reimbursement for an Apple laptop computer, an iPad, and iPhone, audiobooks, various accessories, data plans, software, apps, phone fees, and other similar expenses. The parents argued that the items at issue were components of “special education” and/or “related services,” and, therefore, must be provided at no cost to the parent. (more…)
Readers of our FR Alerts may remember my colleague Kendra B. Yoch authored an Alert in 2013 about a set of outlier cases in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, K.M. v. Tustin Unified School District and D.H. v. Poway Unified School District. The cases dealt with a request by a student with a hearing impairment for a certain technology service as an accommodation. A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals held that a school district violated disabilities laws even though it had complied with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), because compliance with the IDEA does not satisfy all claims under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) or under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
If you are outside the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit (Arizona, Washington, Oregon, California, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Alaska, and Hawaii), you may rightly think “Well that’s interesting, but luckily it doesn’t apply to me.” Although normally that response is correct, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) last fall adopted the Tustin standard in a “Dear Colleague Letter” (DCL), thus applying the standard to school districts across the country. Last month, the National School Boards Association called OCR out in a letter. As NSBA reported, it argued in its letter that OCR was off base in so widely applying an inappropriate standard and one that has only been adopted by one court in one jurisdiction.
The Tustin Decision
In the Tustin case, two hearing impaired students had individualized education programs (IEPs) providing services and accommodations to address their communications. There was no question that the students were receiving a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) under the IDEA, because they were making progress and receiving meaningful educational benefits. The students’ parents wanted the schools to provide the students Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), which is a service where a stenographer transcribes communications in real time, which are then streamed to the student’s computer in closed captioning. The Ninth Circuit held that the mere fact that the students were being properly served under the IDEA did not preclude liability under Section 504 and the ADA. (more…)
Last week the Federal Trade Commission announced on its blog that it has updated its frequently asked questions (FAQs) about the interplay between schools and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Although nothing in the guidance is new, it is a good reminder of the often confusing rules governing consent for online services and apps in the school context.
What is COPPA?
COPPA and the related FTC regulation implementing it generally apply to operators of commercial websites and online services (including mobile apps) directed to children under 13 that collect, use, or disclose personal information from children. Operators covered by COPPA and the FTC rule must do a number of things to comply with the rule, including providing notice to parents about what data they collect and how they use it, and obtaining verifiable parental consent, with limited exceptions, before collecting personal information online from children.
Under COPPA and the FTC rule, there are some circumstances where a school district can collect the required parental consent to avoid having to coordinate between parents and the online service providers. That issue is what the FTC FAQs address, and the FTC updated them to streamline and clarify the rules, which are often confusing to stakeholders. (more…)
A recent lawsuit out of Ohio brings a local flair to what has otherwise become a relatively common story. We’ve all heard of teachers being disciplined or dismissed for posting something thoughtless online that led to community uproar. But did you ever think it would happen with a post about … milk?
My Twitter followers may have seen my retweet of the NSBA Legal Clips story about this case last week. The lawsuit, which was filed by the ACLU in Ohio, involves a former teacher, Keith Allison, who alleges he was fired by Green Local School District (GLSD) because of a message he posted on Facebook on his own time and off of school grounds. The post was made in the Summer of 2014, and urged readers to choose plant-based milk over cow’s milk. The post showed a picture of a young calf in a small crate and said:
The cruelty of separation, loneliness, and infant slaughter lingers inside each glass of cow’s milk. Your voice can help change the system. You don’t have to support this. Plant-based milks are everywhere and are delicious.
Turns out that the community GLSD serves is heavily populated with dairy farmers. Allison’s post even said “This place is five miles from my house.” Allison’s supervisor allegedly called him in after the school year began and said that teachers like himself needed to take care not to offend the agricultural community. His pay was cut, and then at the end of the year his contract was not renewed. Although he was later hired for a different position, Allison says the new position was not as good as the old, and that he feels now he must censor his speech to avoid further retaliation by GLSD.
Those who read the blog know that a public school district that disciplines or terminates an employee for off-campus, online speech has to contend with the First Amendment. Teachers and other school employees do not shed their free speech rights simply by being hired by a public school. To survive a First Amendment challenge, a school district will need to show one of the following three things: (more…)
A classroom teacher comes across a promising online educational service or application that she wants to use with her students and comes to you to make sure it’s legally appropriate. The service or app would collect and use student data, maybe even share it. How do you know whether the service or app is privacy-friendly and complies with your responsibilities under federal laws like FERPA? The first key is to review the terms of service (TOS) for the service or app—and to do so before you or that teacher “clicks” to agree to using it with students.
The Department of Education recently issued requirements and best practices focused on protecting student privacy while using online educational services. The requirements and best practices document was followed by model terms of service guidance and a training video with the goal of helping school leaders tackle these very questions. The Department warned that school officials must exercise diligence when reviewing TOS agreements to avoid violating student privacy requirements.
The model TOS guidance is especially useful in that it sets forth 12 privacy-related TOS provisions to which school leaders should pay particular attention. The guidance provides examples of TOS provisions that are best practices and suggest that the provider is taking the right steps toward protecting privacy. The guidance also provides examples of TOS provisions that cannot or should not be included in TOS—in other words, examples of legal mistakes that you might see in a TOS and should avoid. Explanations follow each set of examples to help school leaders understand the privacy concerns at issue.
Examples include provisions relating to the definition of “data,” marketing and advertising, and data mining, among others. Although the Department makes clear that the best practice is always to consult legal counsel to review TOS and other materials governing a relationship between a school district and an online educational service or app provider, the guidance and other materials are essential reading for school leaders who are called upon to review TOS or other requests related to such providers.
My colleague Brian Crowley and I will be presenting with Board President Anne Miller of Community School District 300 this Saturday on this and other technology related issues at the National School Boards Association Conference in Nashville. If you are at the conference, we hope you will come and chat with us about these and other hot EdTech issues.
With Guest Blogger Kendra Yoch
The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) was busy the last quarter of 2014, issuing guidance on six issues, plus another already in 2015. The Dear Colleague Letters (DCL), Frequently Asked Questions, and Fact Sheets provide an overview of the way the DOE interprets the federal civil rights laws in the school context and the steps schools should take to ensure compliance with these laws. In case you missed one, here is a recap.
Ensuring Students Have Equal Access to Educational Resources Without Regard to Race, Color, or National Origin
On October 1, 2014, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a DCL and Fact Sheet outlining the obligations of states, districts, and schools under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. On the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, OCR highlights the right of all students, regardless of race, color, or national origin, to equal educational opportunities. Title VI prohibits both intentional discrimination and the implementation of policies and practices that disproportionately affect minority students. The DCL explains how OCR investigates complaints and urges districts and schools to proactively identify and address any discrepancies in resources, such as access to advanced courses, arts, extracurricular activities, strong teachers, strong administrators, technology, and comparable learning environments.
Responding to Bullying of Students with Disabilities
On October 21, 2014, OCR issued a DCL and Fact Sheet providing guidance on responding to bullying of students with disabilities. OCR notes an increase in the number of complaints it has received on this issue. The guidance explains that failure to adequately address bullying based on a student’s disability may be a violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Additionally, bullying of a student with a disability on any basis may cause a denial of a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), which the district must also address. (more…)
As our firm reported earlier this year, the Supreme Court recently held that sectarian invocations at public meetings do not automatically violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which separates church and state. Advocates for schools have opined about the potential impact the case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, may have in the context of school board meetings. For instance, Education Week’s summary of the case stated:
[E]ducation law experts [have] much to chew about over whether the court would treat school board meetings the same as town councils and other municipal meetings. Some federal appeals courts that have addressed meeting prayers at school board meetings have distinguished that situation … by suggesting board meetings were more like school itself, with frequent presence of schoolchildren in a coercive environment.
A recent complaint filed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation against a school district in California promises to test how the Greece holding will be applied in the school context. The complaint in Freedom from Religion Foundation v. Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education cites to Third and Sixth Circuit appellate court cases that found constitutional violations where prayer was included in school board meetings.
Although it remains to be seen how the California court or any other court will decide the issue after Greece, the lawsuit highlights the significant risk associated with injecting religion into public board meetings, even after the recent Supreme Court ruling. This is especially true where, as in the California case, students are required to be present at school board meetings in any context. Until the issue is decided by a court in this jurisdiction, school boards should continue to consult with counsel before making religious invocations at meetings.
In a recent decision, Ollier v. Sweetwater Union High School District, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a trial court finding that a public school district intentionally discriminated and retaliated against female athletes on the basis of their sex, violating Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The case is notable for finding that the three-part Title IX test generally applied to higher education entities also applies to high schools. The court also notably rejected the school district’s argument that there is no Title IX violation if there are more sports teams for female students at school than male students, even if there are fewer spots occupied by female students at the school.
In Ollier, the court found that female athletes at a high school were supervised by overworked coaches, provided with inferior competition and practice facilities, and received less publicity than male athletes. The court found that there were fewer athletic opportunities for female students as compared to their respective enrollments. The court rejected the school’s argument that there were more sports teams for girls than boys at the school, which was an attempt to justify the disparity between opportunity and enrollment. The court explained that the Title IX test requiring substantial proportionality between female athletic participation and enrollment generally applied to colleges and universities also applied to high schools, and that the test focuses on the number of participating athletes, not the number of available spots on girls’ teams. The court determined that because the inequalities were the result of systemic administrative failures and the failure to implement policies and procedures to cure the inequities, the school district illegally discriminated against female athletes in violation of Title IX.
The court also found that the school district retaliated against the female athletes by firing the girls’ softball coach just a few weeks after the father of two of the athletes complained about the perceived inequalities in the programs. The coach had been warned that he could be fired at any time for any reason, which he understood to be a threat that he would be fired if the female athletes continued to complain. The court explained that coaches are often the best advocates for female athletes and that employment decisions affecting them can negatively impact the athletes.