Policy and Tragedy
May 19, 1999, was the day seventh-grader Timijane Martin was suspended for having a cigarette in her locker in Shawano Community Middle School in Shawano, Wis. It was also the day Timijane committed suicide. Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit decided that the procedure used by school administrators to suspend Timijane had not violated her rights under the U.S. Constitution. The case—Martin v. Shawano-Gresham School District—illustrates the intricate interplay of constitutional principles, state laws, and school board policies governing school discipline.
The Family Educational and Privacy Act (FERPA) made waves when Congress passed it in 1974 because the law appeared to give powerful rights to students and parents over access to student records. But in an important decision this past June, Gonzaga University v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that this is not necessarily the case.
The Voucher Decision
By the slimmest of margins, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a historic decision upholding the constitutionality of school vouchers. The high court's 5-4 ruling in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris marks a fundamental change in the debate. Rather than a legal dispute to be resolved by the courts, the voucher debate is now, for the most part, a political controversy to be resolved by legislatures.
"Reasonable" Drug Testing
School employees yearn for clear rules—what lawyers call bright line rules that are so clear and broad that nonlawyers can easily apply them to large categories of cases. The U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision about random drug testing for students taking part in extracurricular activities has given school officials just such a bright line rule. The case, Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls, concerned a policy of the school board in Tecumseh, Okla.
What Did They Know?
That old Watergate phrase—What did he know and when did he know it? —has been popping up in the news a lot recently. Said in response to one political controversy after another, it presumes that the he in question had authority to act on the information. But when the controversy involves a school district and ongoing sexual harassment, the question of who knew about the incidents—and whether that person had the authority to address them—can be as important in determining liability as what the person knew and when.
Searching for the Right Balance
A landmark desegregation case ends, but questions remain. With a single word—denied—in a one-sentence order issued on April 15, the U.S. Supreme Court ended 37 years of litigation in one of the most important school desegregation cases in history, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. Although Swann has ended, the problem of de facto segregation and resegregation remains with us—in districts that have never known de jure segregation as well as in districts that have.
Trouble in Paradise
A Louisiana case provides an object lesson in the Establishment Clause. Once in a while, it's a good idea to review what's obvious—because it isn't always obvious to everyone. This month, here's the obvious, from a Louisiana case, Jabr v. Rapides Parish School Board,: The First Amendment's Establishment Clause prohibits public school employees from distributing Bibles to students.
Privacy, Part Deux
In my June 2001 column, The Privacy of Grades, I discussed a case from Oklahoma in which an appeals court ruled that peer grading violates the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The Supreme Court decided to review the case. Then, in a decision issued in February, it reversed the lower court's ruling, holding that FERPA does not prohibit student grading of other students' work. The case is Owasso Independent School District No. I-001 v. Falvo.
Who Has the Right to Choose?
This month's column concerns a teacher's right to free speech—and a school district's power to set its own curriculum. Courts around the country have long endorsed and protected the latter principle, maintaining that the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause generally does not allow teachers to substitute their own curricular judgment for that of the school board and administrators. But that authority is not absolute, as is shown in this unusual case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, Cockrel v. Shelby County School District.
School Uniforms Redux
School uniforms are back. This month I'll review a recent decision by the 5th Circuit upholding a school uniform policy, Littlefield v. Forney Independent School District, to consider the court's discussion of constitutional challenges made by students and parents against a school uniform policy. One board's approach to policy on uniforms provides an approach for others to follow.
A Turf War Over Open Meetings
Here's my idea for a new bumper sticker: School Board Members Do It In The Open. As you guessed, of course, it means meet. I'm talking about open meetings laws that govern meetings of school board members to conduct board business. But who is a school board member? And what is a meeting? Does e-mail correspondence among board members amount to a meeting? A case from the state of Washington, Wood v. Battle Ground School District, gives helpful answers to these questions.
A Search for the Right Answer
What's the worst nightmare of a plaintiff's lawyer? It's a right without a remedy—a declaration by a court that your client has a legal right and that someone violated it, but that the court is not going to rectify the violation. No money damages. No injunction against future violations. Nothing. In school law, it's illustrated by a recent federal case from Georgia about strip searches of students, Thomas ex rel. Thomas v. Roberts.