Pending Education Discrimination Case

On February 26, 2015, Division I heard Mercer Island School District v. N.W. and R.W. (Case no. 71419-8 – follow this link and type the case number to find all materials related to this case).

The rough outline of the case is that a student of color was targeted with racial comments by one main student and a couple of that students friends. The school district did respond, but there seems to be questions of whether the school district responded in a timely and appropriate manner.

When the parents complained about the students behavior and the school’s response, the school said there was no discrimination. The parents appealed to the school board and the school board denied the existence of discrimination. The parents then appealed to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and there was a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). The ALJ found the school had acted in a discriminatory manner. The school district appealed in Superior Court and the Superior Court overturned on the ALJ’s major findings. The parents appealed the Superior Court decision to Division I.

At oral arguments, the judges honed in on what standard should be used in the administrative context when determining the liability of a school district. The School District argued for a high standard of “deliberate indifference” and the attorney for the parents, Ernest Saadiq Morris, noted that the Administrative Law Judge did use the deliberate indifference standard but that even under this standards the school district did not prevail with the ALJ and that based on administrative law, the ALJ findings should be upheld. In response to the specific question regarding the appropriate standard, the parents agreed that in the administrative context it should be the lower standard known or should have known standard is more appropriate, although I got the impression there was a concession that the higher standard should apply in a monetary damages setting.

In the guidance that exists on this question of the standard in the administrative context, both the Department of Justice and OSPI have stated that the known or should have known standard should apply and that schools are required to take prompt action to correct the discrimination and the effects of discrimination.

The deliberate indifference standard the school district advocated is based on the case law regarding when a individual files a suit against a school district for monetary damages. In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629 (1999), while the U.S. Supreme Court found a school district could be liable under Title IX for peer based sexual harassment, the standard was deliberate indifference – recipients response to the harassment or lack thereof is clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.

Based on oral arguments – it seems that the main question the court will answer in its opinion is – in the administrative context can schools be held liable in the sense of requiring administrative fixes, improving policies and procedures, based on the known or should have known standard?

An important distinction that I did not feel was teased out is the reason that the court found reached the deliberate indifference holding. Title IX is considered a spending clause law, meaning that in order to receive federal funds a school district has to agree not to discriminate. However, the statutes at play here are state statutes, not federal statutes. States do not have to rely on spending clauses or anything else. They get to make rules within their borders and the rules have to be followed. The nondiscrimination laws, coupled with our laws against harassment, intimidation and bullying, make it clear that our legislature intends on schools having an affirmative duty to make sure that kids are safe in schools, even for peer harassment issues.

One of the Judges on the panel hearing this case was Judge Dwyer. Judge Drwyer wrote the majority opinion in one of the only state based discrimination appellate decision, a 2008 Title IX case by the name of S.S. v. Roe/University of Washington, 143 Wn. App. 75 (Wash.App. Div 1 2000)(case involved a student football player raping a student and the University’s poor response). In this context, Division I upheld the deliberate indifference standard. This was a suit for monetary damages and there was not a significant discussion on and Division I cited the Davis court that “funding recipients are properly held liable in damages only where they are deliberately indifferent to sexual harassment, of which they have actual knowledge, that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.”

Division I follows the deliberate indifference theory when looking at the University’s potential liability. Again, this was a Title IX case, not a case based on the state nondiscrimination or sex equity laws.

It will be interesting to see what the court decides and whether either of the parties will appeal the decision to our state supreme court.