Education Law Insights

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

Posted by Brian Crowley 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 Brian Crowley 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…)

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

Posted by Brian Crowley 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 Brian Crowley 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 Brian Crowley 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 Brian Crowley 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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Department of Education Asks School Leaders to Address Gender-Based Violence

Posted by Brian Crowley on March 6, 2013

In a Dear Colleague letter issued last week to chief state school officers, the U.S. Department of Education called for immediate action to reduce gender-based violence in schools. The letter is short and sets forth only a few general suggestions for steps that schools can take to respond to gender-based violence. But the letter must be read against the backdrop of two previous Dear Colleague letters issued by the Department on bullying, harassment and sexual violence. Against the backdrop of those letters, the most recent Dear Colleague Letter is yet another reminder of the high standards to which the Department and its Office for Civil Rights (OCR) holds schools with respect to sexual harassment and violence.

Background

By way of background, the letter reportedly was released during a White House event on teen dating violence prevention, which was part of National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month and the Obama Administration’s efforts to raise awareness of gender-based violence. A press release issued by the Department suggests that the purpose of the letter was to make clear that although strategies to improve school climate and reduce bullying are critical, they may not be adequate to address the harms of gender-based violence.

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Are Emails, Texts, Tweets, and Other Digital Communications Student Records Under FERPA and State Law?

Posted by Brian Crowley on February 20, 2013

As schools increase the use of technology to communicate with and about students, questions arise about the intersection between the data created and student records laws, such as the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). States also have similar laws that may provide greater protections than their federal counterpart. Are emails, texts, Tweets, and other digital communications between teachers, administrators, parents, and students “educational records” under FERPA and related state laws?

Let’s address the following questions: (1) Why does it matter? (2) Are digital communications student records? and (3) How do I respond to a broad student records request for digital communications? (more…)

Legal Issues for BYOD and 1:1 Programs in Schools: #Edchat Follow-Up

Posted by Brian Crowley on February 12, 2013

Each Tuesday the #Edchat hashtag brings together educators from across the globe to discuss education-related topics on Twitter. (For those wondering “What is #Edchat,” one of the founders describes the movement here.) Last week one of the questions on #Edchat was “How do we train educators to teach in programs like BYOD and 1:1?” The chat was timely because the Internet is abuzz with questions about whether BYOD programs and 1:1 programs have a place in the classroom. BYOD programs are programs through which schools tell students “bring your own devices” to the classroom for pedagogical use, and 1:1 programs are programs through which schools equip each student with a school-owned electronic device for school-related use.

As the transcript shows, there was a lively conversation with hundreds of Tweets discussing the benefits of BYOD and 1:1 programs. For instance, participants pointed out that BYOD and 1:1 programs allow technology to be more seamlessly integrated into the classroom in ways the traditional computer lab never allows. Participants also noted that use of technology in the classroom can help turn students from “tech comfy” to “tech savvy.” (The idea is described more here.)

The participants also pointed out some of the risks of BYOD and 1:1 programs. As one participant put it, “Moving forward with 1:1 without preparing teachers properly creates school culture and pedagogical problems.” But there are also important legal risks, and school districts should not move forward with BYOD or 1:1 programs without preparing educators to understand those risks, as well. I pointed this out in a few Tweets, and was asked by some participants to provide some resources about those legal risks.

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USDOE Spanish Bullying Website Highlights Challenges in Addressing Bullying with LEP Students, Parents, Staff, and Community Members

Posted by Brian Crowley on February 11, 2013

The U.S. Department of Education has launched a Spanish-language website providing resources to teachers, parents, and community leaders to prevent bullying. The website is http://espanol.stopbullying.gov and is similar in content to its English-language counterpart, www.stopbullying.gov. This website is an important reminder of the intersection between challenges school districts face in addressing bullying and challenges they face in communicating effectively with Limited English Proficient (LEP) students and parents about important issues. Schools with large populations of parents and students with LEP should take steps to address bullying and provide bullying prevention education resources in relevant languages as well as in English.

The Illinois State Board of Education reported in its recent Superintendent’s Message that the Spanish-language “stopbullying” website includes the following resources:

  • Training Module with Speaker Notes – a presentation with suggested talking points, including the latest research to help participants create an action plan for a community event.
  • Training Module PowerPoint – a slide-by-slide presentation for use at a community event, workshop, or town hall meeting.
  • Community Action Toolkit – a supplemental guide, including tip sheets, a template event agenda, action planning matrix, and feedback forms.
  • Misdirections Packet – a Tip Sheet  and a Spanish transcript of the Misdirections video featuring Dr. Catherine Bradshaw, a national expert in bullying prevention who discusses approaches to avoid in bullying prevention and response.

The Spanish-language resource is a reflection of the challenges school districts face in juggling bullying concerns and concerns relating to communicating with English Language Learners and students and parents with LEP. When LEP students, parents, staff and community members are at issue, it can be even more difficult for school districts to comply with recent Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) requirements to prevent and address certain types of bullying, such as bullying based on ethnic background or race. For students and parents with linguistic challenges, this may include education on and responses to bullying in a language other than English.

Moreover, recent lawsuits make clear that educating staff and community members about bullying in schools and how to report it is important. Responding to such reports in a meaningful way is also important. One recent lawsuit reportedly filed by a former school district employee inArizona, for instance, alleges that the school district did not respond to her reports that an ELL student was being bullied for his strong accent, among other things.