The National School Boards Association (NSBA) joined the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) in urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to follow standards—carefully developed by U.S. Supreme Court rulings—for determining a school district’s liability in cases of harassment.
NSBA and TASB filed an amicus brief in Lance v. Lewisville Independent Sch. Dist. that maintains school districts should not be held liable under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits recipients of federal funds from discriminating on the basis of disability, in instances where school officials tried but were unsuccessful in completely stopping the harassment.
The amicus brief asks the court to follow the U.S. Supreme Court rulings that follow long-established standards to hold a district liable under federal anti-discrimination laws. Those cases hold schools liable only where school officials with appropriate authority deliberately refuse to take action to respond to known actions of harassment. NSBA and TASB caution the court against using the informal guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights’ (OCR) in an October 26, 2010 “Dear Colleague” letter as the legal standard to impose monetary damages in such cases.
“The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is advocating for an expansive standard of liability that would hold schools responsible in virtually all cases where harassment was not completely eliminated despite the district’s efforts to protect students,” said NSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel. “That is not what the law intends, and it would be an unprecedented change from previous Supreme Court rulings.”
The lawsuit was brought by parents of a student with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, who committed suicide at school when he was in fourth grade. Although the school had provided a full psychological evaluation and responded to complaints of harassment, the parents sued the school district on allegations that the school district’s failure to do enough to stop the continuing harassment of their son. Recognizing longstanding precedent, the lower court ruled that the parents could not demonstrate that any district employee had intentionally discriminated against the student solely on the basis of his disability.
“While this case stemmed from a tragic situation, courts should refrain from adopting OCR’s ‘national standard’ and continue to defer to the judgment of educators who are knowledgeable about their communities, work closely with students in their schools, are aware of community resources, and understand the educational and emotional needs of the children entrusted to their care,” said TASB Executive Director James B. Crow.
Read more insights on NSBA’s Legal Clips.