Monday, November 9, 2009

Student harassment case fails under "actual notice" test

It's illegal for school districts to condone racial harassment among students. But the legal standards for these cases makes them hard to win. You might think student harassment cases apply the same legal standards as workplace harassment cases. Think again.

The case is D.T. v. Somers Central School District, a summary order decided on October 15. The plaintiff is a black student who endured racial harassment from classmates. The Court of Appeals (Raggi, Livingston and Cogan) affirms summary judgment for the school district. The legal analysis shows how hard it is to win these cases. First, the district must have actual notice of the harassment, unlike in employment discrimination cases, where the employer can lose if it should have known about the harassment. Under Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, 524 U.S. 274 (1998), the Supreme Court rejected the "constructive notice" test in Title VI and Title IX cases. This means the parents' evidence in the form of affidavits from a psychologist and another parent about harassment against a different student are not relevant to this case.

Second, the school district loses the case only if its response to the racial (or sexual) harassment was "clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances." That's the rule in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629 (1999). While an employer which unreasonably deals with sexual harassment loses the case, the "clearly unreasonable" test in school harassment cases is a much higher standard, a "deliberate indifference" test. The parents lose this case because "the record indicates that J.L.'s teacher reprimanded the alleged harasser for her actions in class and may have sent one of the two students out in the hall." In addition, there is no evidence that the teacher's response to the harassment caused subsequent harassment against plaintiff elsewhere in the building. Under Gebser and Davis, no deliberate indifference.

The Second Circuit decision does not tell us what happened to the student, but the district court ruling does. Classmates said he was "not black enough" and called him a "nigger." In the "cafeteria incident," "student MC and student L approached JL's lunch table and shook hands with everyone seated at the table, except JL and JL's friend, KF. During this encounter, L hit JL in the back of the head approximately twelve times, MC told JL that he was not being a 'good nigger' and MC grabbed JL's chair, causing JL to fall to the ground."

See how hard it is to win these cases? On this evidence, if J.L. was an employee at the school district and he suffered this kind of harassment, the school's response might well entitle him to victory. Why is it so hard to win student harassment cases? Part of the reason has to do with the fact that the Constitution's Spending Clause applies in deciding these cases, which invokes a different legal test.

When the Supreme Court recognized a cause of action for student-on-student harassment under Title VI, it did so in a close vote. Four Justices did not want these claims to proceed at all. Justice Kennedy in dissent warned of an "avalanche of liability" against schools. He added,

The only certainty flowing from the majority's decision is that scarce resources will be diverted from educating our children and that many school districts, desperate to avoid Title IX peer harassment suits, will adopt whatever federal code of student conduct and discipline the Department of Education sees fit to impose upon them. The Nation's schoolchildren will learn their first lessons about federalism in classrooms where the Federal Government is the ever-present regulator. The Federal Government will have insinuated itself not only into one of the most traditional areas of state concern but also into one of the most sensitive areas of human affairs. This federal control of the discipline of our Nation's schoolchildren is contrary to our traditions and inconsistent with the sensible administration of our schools.

As this was a 5-4 case, this language could have been the majority, and student-on-student lawsuits would have been scuttled from the outset.

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