Mercer Island School District v. Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and parents of B.W.

On April 13, 2015, Division I issued its decision in the Mercer Island racial discrimination case that I previously wrote about here. Division I found that in the the administrative context (i.e., working with the school district and OSPI as opposed to filing a civil suit for damages in court), school districts that have actual or constructive notice (also known as the knew or should have known standard) of racial harassment, the school must take immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred. It further requires that every investigation should be prompt, thorough, and impartial. Finally, it imposes upon the school the duty to take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end harassment, eliminate any hostile environment and its effects, and prevent harassment from recurring.

The knew or should have known standard is a lower standard than the deliberate indifference standard. The court noted that even though the deliberate indifference standard creates a lower burden for a school district, to avoid administrative liability the school district still failed to meet the deliberate indifference test. The court likely went into this discussion to make sure that if the case was appealed to the State Supreme Court that the justices would not doubt how Division I would have ruled. This would mean if the State Supreme Court eventually reverses the knew or should have known standard, the overall holding of this case will not be reversed, because the court of appeals clearly demonstrated that they would have ruled the same way using the higher threshold.

Mercer Island School District, Res. V. N.W. And R.W., On Behalf Of B.w., Apps., Docket No. 71419-8-I, File Date: April 13, 2015; Opinion: Dwyer, Concurrence in part: Verellen; Counsel for Appellant: Ernest Saadiq Morris; Counsel for Respondent Parker a Howell and Jeffrey Ganson Counsel for OSPI and Amicus on behalf OSPI: Justin Kjolseth; Amicus on behalf of the ACLU: Sara Dunne and La Rond Baker

Oversimplified facts: A student targeted B.W., calling him names on multiple occasions. B.W. The targeted student’s grades dropped in that class. Part of the reason the grade dropped was that instead of writing on topic, he submitted two papers describing a random and violent accident happen to the aggressor student. Once the targeted student transferred out of the class, he began earning “A’s” and there were no more concerns about his behavior.

The court first focused on the deliberate indifference standard. In order to satisfy the deliberate indifference standard, the parents were required to establish: (1) racial discrimination; (2) knowledge by an appropriate person of the discrimination; (3) deliberate indifference by the district; and (4) discrimination that was sufficiently severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to have deprived the targeted student of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.

Per the opinion, the school made several mistakes in dealing with this situation. Based on the deliberate indifference standard, these include:

  • The school district looked at the incidents involving the harassment separately instead of holistically. A school district acts with deliberate indifference when it responds to report of a discriminatory act that is clearly unreasonable in light of all of the known circumstances. 
  • The  school failed to properly investigate the claim of discrimination, which resulted in a clearly unreasonable response to the harassment. 
    • Failed to have compliance coordinator/officer and failure to update its policies to reflect the nondiscrimination law and OSPI’s May 2011 regulations.
    • Co-principals conducted inadequate investigations, failing to follow even their own out-of-date policy and doing the following:
      • The school and the District only interviewed two of the four students working on the group project where the racial harassment incidents occurred. The reasons for not interviewing additional students were not credible, specifically that an Apserger’s diagnosis would have made B.W. mishear the racial comment. The District didn’t provide any any evidence to support that conclusion that an Asperger’s diagnosis would make B.W. unable to accurately hear and report a racial epithet.
      • The school failed to discover basic information that contextualized B.W.’s complaint and gave further credence to B.W.’s allegations.
      • The school continued to informally investigate the report after the parents told him they wished to file a formal complaint, which would have been handled by the District as opposed to the school.
      • The District did not discuss B.W.’s essay. The teacher expressed concern that if the parents saw the essay, the parents would see it as confirming the racial harassment allegations.
    • Formal investigation by the school’s frequently used outside counsel was “fraught with inadequacies.”
      • Attorney investigator did not ask B.W. about the two essays, nor did she ask the teacher or co-principals to explain why they withheld the existence of the essays from the parents. The reports weren’t even included in the text of the report, but they were appended to the report, which is the first time the parents learned of the existence of one of the essays.
      • She did not account for the conspicuous discrepancy between B.W.’s grades in other classes and his grades in the class he shared with his harasser.
      • She did not address the ostensible connection between the discussion of Mexico and the racially charged comments between two students and B.W.
    • District failed to meaningfully and appropriately discipline the aggressor student. He was only told not to use race as the basis for angry comments and to sign an “anti-harassment contract.”
    • District refused to consider any scenario in which B.W. was not to blame for the conflict with the aggressor student, believing the conflict was due to B.W.’s social deficits. Apparently the school was frustrated because shortly after entering this school district, B.W.’s IEP was withdrawn at the parent’s request.

Having satisfied the first three prongs of the deliberate indifference test, the next question is whether it was sufficiently severe, pervasive and objectively offensive so that it can be said to have deprived B.W. of access to educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school. The court said the racial comments were beyond simple teasing and name-calling, the student made it clear that it wasn’t that his skin color made him different, but that it made him stupid. It was also done in the context of group setting, increasing the humiliation B.W. felt. B.W. was new to this school, he cried in public, he wrote disturbing essays, and he received uncharacteristically low grades in this class.

Based on that, the court held that harassment was sufficiently severe. Then the question is – did it interfere with equal access to educational opportunities or benefits? The “dropoff” in grades can provide “necessary evidence of a potential link between” a students diminished educational opportunities.” B.W. was also forced to remain in the class with the harassing student. Once B.W.’s parents transferred him out of the class, his grades immediately went up to match his high achievement in his other classes.

Lower Standard Analysis 

After stating that the facts support a finding that the school district failed to meet the deliberate indifference standard, the court turned its discussion to the question of whether in the administrative context deliberate indifference applies. The Office of Civil Rights (of the U.S. Department of Education, the administrative agency tasked with enforcement of the Federal counterparts to the Washington nondiscrimination laws) requires “upon receiving actual or constructive notice of racial harassment, the school ‘take immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred.'” Then the  District is required to take “prompt and effective steps” to end the harassment.” Applying this more lenient standard the court found that “it is abundantly clear that the District’s response violated the EEOL.” (EEOL is the Equal Education Opportunity Law prohibits discrimination on a several protected classes, including race.)

Concurrence

Verellan concurs that the District failed to meet the deliberate indifference standard in addressing the discrimination. Verellan would not take the next step and determine whether the OCR know or should have known standard should have been applied.

Take Away Points

When parents complain to the school district, or the school district knew or should have known about discrimination based on any of the of the protected classes identified in RCW 28A.642.010:

  • race,
  • creed,
  • religion,
  • color,
  • national origin,
  • honorably discharged veteran or military status,
  • sexual orientation including gender expression or identity,
  • the presence of any sensory, mental, or physical disability, or the use of a trained dog guide or service animal by a person with a disability.
  • Sex (is covered under the Sex Equity Law RCW 28A.640)

a school must take immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise determine what has occurred. The investigation should be prompt, thorough, and impartial. If discrimination exists (including harassment) the District must take prompt and effective steps to end the harassment.

Missing Parts of the Opinion

Difference between Federal and State Laws

I would have liked to see a greater discussion on state vs. federal law and whether or not the deliberate indifference standard is truly required in state discrimination cases. The other case decided by Division I on this issues, S.S. v. Alexander, 143 Wn. App. 75, 177 P3d 742 (2008) also did not discuss this issue. The court mentioned Title IX and Title IX, which are interpreted consistently with each other. Both are based on the Congress’s power under the Spending Clause. Basically compliance with nondiscrimination rules are ensured because the federal government can place conditions on the receipt of federal funds. If schools take federal funding, they agree to abide by the rules, in “what amounts essentially to a contract between the Government and the recipient of funds.”  (Citing Gebser v. Lago Visto Indep. Sch. Dist. 524 U.W. 274, 286 (1998). 

There is no express right to a private suit in Title VI or Title IX, but the Supreme court has held that both statutes are enforceable through an implied right of action. The Supreme Court clarified that this private right of action is only available when a school acts with deliberate indifference. It would be inconsistent with the SPending Clause origins of Title IX and Title CI to impose damages liability unless a school authority with the power to remedy the discrimination had actual notice of and was deliberately indifferent to the conduct.

Despite discussing the above reasoning and pointing out that Title IX and Title VI require a deliberate indifference standard, the court doesn’t discuss the state statues and how they are not based on the Spending Clause. States get to tell schools what kind of nondiscriminatory standards they must comply with without basing it on any condition of funding. Plus our state statutes have express rights to pursue actions in civil courts. It’s not implied. Schools are on constructive notice that the must not discriminate and if they discriminate there may be administrative and judicial consequences. This distinction seems very important but it isn’t discussed. (See Pages 32-34 of the court’s decision for more discussion on this).

Multiple Identities 

The court likely limited its discussion to race because that was the issue before it, but since there was so much discussion about the targeted student’s Asperger’s diagnosis, I would have like to have the court point out that the failure of the school district to believe the targeted student because of his Asperger’s diagnosis was also a form of discrimination. Students who have multiple identities are often targeted for bullying because of the fact that they have multiple identities and the decision was remiss to spend so much time discussing the way the Apserger’s diagnosis interfered with the District’s handling of the case without stating that was also discriminatory.

Distinction between harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) and discrimination.

I was disappointed that there was no discussion about the difference between harassment, intimidation and bullying (“HIB”) and discrimination. There has been a lot more emphasis put in schools about HIB, there are state model policies and procedures. On Page 12, the court noted that the District’s November 4 decision was pursuant to the District’s Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying policy. This flags for me that it was the wrong policy as it is in connection with a different law. The distinction between generalized HIB and HIB targeted at a student based on one of the protected classes identified in the state statue trigger different requirements for action. HIB targeted based on a protected class is likely going to be discrimination. Generalized HIB require individualized responses. HIB against a student because of a protected class requires schools to address the school atmosphere/climate and review their policies and procedures to make sure the school is not contributing to the issue of discrimination. HIB based on federally protected classes may overlap with federal nondiscrimination laws and may require a concurrent Title VI or Title IX investigation.