Education Law Insights

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…)

Department of Education Office for Civil Rights Issues Guidance on Pregnant and Parenting Students

Posted by Jackie Wernz on July 3, 2013

As reported by Franczek Radelet attorney Scott Warner and FR LEADS Fellow Kent Sparks (a law student at the Michigan State University College of Law) in a recent  FR Alert, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a Dear Colleague Letter last week for secondary schools about how Title IX relates to pregnant and parenting students. OCR reminded schools that Title IX protects pregnant and parenting students from sex discrimination. In an accompanying pamphlet, OCR outlined the various requirements that public schools must respect with respect to pregnant and parenting students. For more information on the DCL, you can access the FR Alert here.

The Impact of Fisher v. Texas on Race-Conscious Assignment Decisions in K-12 Schools

Posted by Jackie Wernz on July 1, 2013

The big news this week in education is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 7-1 decision in Fisher v. University of Texas. In Fisher, the Court held that the lower court should not have taken at face value the University’s claim that it needed to use race in admissions decisions. The Court remanded the decision to the lower court to decide whether the University can establish that its consideration of race is narrowly tailored. Specifically, the University must show that it adequately considered race-neutral alternatives before deciding to consider race in admissions. The decision was a higher education decision, but there are important takeaways for primary and secondary schools, as well.

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The Supreme Court’s DOMA Decision: Impact on School Districts

Posted by Jackie Wernz on June 28, 2013

The U. S. Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which had established a federal definition of marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.  The Court’s 5-4 vote in U.S. v. Windsor will reach well beyond the case of Edith Windsor, a New York widow, who was sent a $363,000 estate tax bill by the Internal Revenue Service after her wife died in 2009.  The Windsor decision means that same-sex couples who are legally married now must be treated the same under federal law as married opposite-sex couples.  What does that mean for school districts? My colleagues, Jeff Nowak and Veronica Silvaprovide their take on this decision’s impact on employers, including public schools, in a recent FR Alert.

OCR Decision Reminds School Districts to Conduct Prompt, Thorough Investigation of Student Sexual Harassment and Violence Claims

Posted by Jackie Wernz on June 13, 2013

Mlive.com and the NSBA Legal Clips recently reported that a Michigan School entered into an agreement with the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) to resolve allegations that the district failed to properly address claims of sexual assault by one student on two other students. The case provides an important reminder of the stringent standards to which OCR holds school districts when investigating claims of sexual harassment and violence against students.

In 2010, two female students in the Grand Rapids school district reported being sexually assaulted by a prominent male athlete. One of the students and her parents later reported on fifteen occasions that the student was repeatedly harassed in retaliation after the assault. The student reported being shoved in the hallways, bullied online, and taunted at school sporting events. The student eventually dropped out of extracurricular activities and later out of school.

OCR found that the District did not adequately investigate or respond to the complaints of assault and retaliation. The following are key takeaways that can be gleaned from OCR’s decision:

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Tips and Tricks: Avoiding Discriminatory Discipline of Groups of Students

Posted by Jackie Wernz on May 21, 2013

Discriminatory discipline has been a hot topic this year in public schools, and the focus on this topic makes it one that school leaders should not ignore.

A Spotlight on Discriminatory Discipline 

In January, a major study showed, among other findings, that black and Hispanic students are suspended at higher rates than their non-Hispanic white counterparts, and that the differences often are not attributable to different levels of misbehavior.

In late March, a Mississippi school district entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to address reported discriminatory use of “exclusionary discipline” such as suspension, expulsion and school-based arrest, often for minor infractions, among black students, and use of harsher discipline for black students, even when white peers of similar ages and with similar disciplinary histories committed comparable misbehavior at the same schools.

In April, the Legal Aid of North Carolina filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) alleging that a North Carolina district violated a civil rights law, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by suspending black students and students with disabilities at far higher rates than white students and students without disabilities.

Finally, this week parents and students reportedly filed a lawsuit against police officers and the school board in Compton, California, seeking $41.4 million in damages for disproportionate use of unlawful arrest, excessive force, racial profiling, and racial discrimination by police and police liaison officers in schools.

Tips and Tricks 

Although the severe abuses alleged in these cases are extreme, and although disproportionate disciplinary numbers do not always establish discrimination, the spotlight on discriminatory discipline make clear that schools and school districts with disproportionate disciplinary records are at risk of legal challenges from all directions.

Here are a few tips and tricks for school leaders who wish to take a proactive approach to prevent students of one group from being disciplined more or more harshly than others and to mitigate the risk of lawsuits and complaints like those described above:

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Sixth Circuit Rules School’s Search of Student Cellphone Violated Fourth Amendment

Posted by Jackie Wernz on April 23, 2013

In a recent decision, the first federal appellate court to address the rights of school officials to search student cell phones held that a student’s violation of a school rule regarding technology did not justify a general search of the student’s cell phone by Kentucky school district employees. The case is an important reminder to school leaders that they can search student technology in certain circumstances, but they must respect the fine line between a justifiable search and a search that violates a student’s constitutional rights.

The Decision

The case, G.C. v. Owensboro Public Schools, dealt with a student, G.C., who was involved in a string of disciplinary incidents and had communicated to school officials that he was suicidal. During his freshman year, school officials searched G.C.’s phone after an incident where he walked out of a meeting with a prevention coordinator, left the school building without permission, made a phone call to his father in the parking lot and was found in the parking lot with tobacco products in plain view. The school official who searched the phone cited concerns that the student was going to harm himself as a basis for conducting the search.

That fall, at the beginning of his sophomore year, G.C. violated the school cell phone policy by using his phone to send text messages during class. His teacher confiscated the phone and delivered it to another administrator. The administrator read four text messages on the phone in an effort to see if there was evidence that he was going to harm himself. Although no evidence of misconduct was found on the phone, G.C., who was attending the school as an out-of-district student, was told that he had lost his privileges to attend Owensboro High School because of his behavior.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, addressed a number of issues in its decision, including whether the school district was required to provide G.C. a hearing before telling him he could not attend the high school (it was) and whether the school discriminated against him based on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (it did not). But the most interesting element of the decision dealt with whether the school officials were justified in searching the student’s cell phone.

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Colorado School Denies Six-Year-Old Transgender Student’s Request to Use Girls’ Bathroom

Posted by Jackie Wernz on April 2, 2013

As The New York Times recently reported, a Colorado school district is facing a civil rights complaint after refusing to allow a six-year-old transgender student to use the girls’ bathroom in a local elementary school. The case highlights the challenges that school administrators face when addressing requests by transgender students to use single-sex facilities in school.

On the one hand, families of transgender students, such as the Colorado student, argue that requiring a student to use a gender-neutral, separate facilities creates a stigma. If the facilities are difficult or time-consuming to access, families may see the request as unduly burdensome on the student. On the other hand, schools may have to balance the rights of the transgender students with other factors, such as the rights of other students and the need to maintain discipline.

The Colorado case provides an example of a situation in which the school believed the balance tipped against allowing the transgender student to use the girls’ restroom. The school allowed the student to wear female clothing to school and to be referred to as a female. The school also allowed the student to use a “gender neutral” bathroom in the school health room. In denying the student access to the girls’ bathroom, the school cited concerns about what would occur as the student, who was born a male, grew older and developed male physical characteristics. The school indicated that parents of students who were born female might have legitimate concerns with the transgender student using the same single-sex facilities as their daughters even if the student identifies and presents as female.

Such a decision is not without precedent. In Doe v. Clenchy, a court in Maine held that a school district could deny a transgender student’s request to use the female restrooms at school. The school allowed the student to use the restroom through the fifth grade, but that year a male student walked into the girls’ restroom while the transgender student and some of her friends were washing their hands. When confronted by administration the student said that his grandfather and guardian said if the transgender student could use the girls’ restroom, so could he. The court recognized that the school was placed in a difficult situation because of the desire of a student’s grandfather and guardian “to make a social statement.” The court also noted that it appeared inevitable that a controversy might arise since the parents of the transgender student had agreed to reevaluate the request if the parents of female students complained. The court found that the transgender student’s rights were not violated by the decision to require her to use a gender-neutral restroom in light of the facts of the case.

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