Articles Posted in Education Law

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One of the questions I hear frequently is about whether we are accepting new clients.

While the short answer is “Yes”, here is some additional information which many people find interesting.

Great%20Fit%20Gears%2039896521-001.jpgOur law firm, Sylvester Oppenheim & Linde is committed to client service and quality legal representation for each and every client. That means that we only accept clients who we feel are a good match for our expertise, experience and areas of practice.

I learned a long time ago that we can’t be all things to all clients, but we can be all things to some clients: and those are the ones we welcome and serve in an exemplary manner.

The purpose of this blog is to provide helpful information to anyone who reads it. On our website, you will find another example of our “Be of Service” attitude by reading our Home Page Article “Eleven Questions to ask BEFORE Hiring a Business Attorney“. You will also find a list of our practice areas on that page.

Our clients tell us that they appreciate our honesty, accessibility and guidance. And we appreciate our clients.

Back to the question. The answer is: “Yes, we are always looking for one or two new good clients.” If you have a legal issue, I invite you to call and let’s find out whether we are a great fit for each other. I can be reached at 818-461-8500 or via the Contact form on this page.

Richard Oppenheim

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The Third Circuit Court has ruled in favor of a Pennsylvania school district in a lawsuit brought by the family of a student who was assaulted on a school campus. The assault occurred in the 2012-2013 school year at Chester High School, which is within the boundaries of the defendant in the lawsuit, Chester Upland School District.

Stop school violence road signThe victim was Alphonzo Green, a high school freshman at the time of the assault. Chester High had abolished the issuance of student identification cards, and was not requiring visitors to register at the office or wear a pass. A trespasser entered the campus on a day that is referred to as “National Fight Day” with the apparent object of assaulting several students. Green was one of these.

Green’s father, Alphonzo King, filed a lawsuit against the school district, citing their lax security policies as having caused the attack on his son. According to the complaint, Green’s civil rights had been violated and the district had fostered a dangerous condition when it did away with the ID card requirements. Thus, the complaint argued, Green’s due process was violated.

A district court decided in favor of the defendant, but King chose to appeal to a higher court. The three judge panel sided with the lower court, finding that the claim did not meet four criteria that would have proven the school district’s liability. Mainly, the judges relied upon whether or not the district’s decision not to provide student identification cards was an affirmative act that created a situation that was dangerous for the plaintiff. They concluded that the omission of ID cards did not constitute an affirmative act.

Moreover, the judges felt that the plaintiff couldn’t demonstrate how the physical assault was a “fairly direct” consequence of the school’s refusal to issue ID cards. The plaintiff could only succeed with this claim if he proved that the lack of student ID cards somehow provided the impetus for the physical assault. Arguing that the attack was the result of “random criminal conduct,” the judges decided that the district bore no liability in the incident.

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An online charter school in Ohio filed a lawsuit against the state’s Department of Education in an effort to block an attendance audit.

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, known as ECOT, advertises that it enrolls more than 15,000 students. This means that the facility is larger than most of the traditional public school districts. The tremendous number of students entitles ECOT to approximately $107 million in annual funding from the state.

ECOT is unlike traditional schools in that students log on via the Internet. Officials from the Department of Education want to audit ECOT’s attendance records to determine whether or not they genuinely have 15,000 students and whether or not those learners are meeting the 920 hours threshold that is mandated by state law. This means that students would have to log in for approximately five hours each day.

ECOT consultant Neil Clark argues that students are not required to complete 920 hours of classroom time. He asserts instead that 920 hours of learning opportunities are required to be presented. Moreover, Clark says that the government never asked for “documentation of log-in durations” in prior audits to determine how much funding ECOT would receive. Clark also suggests that the government is trying to retroactively apply new standards that do not apply because of the contract between ECOT and the government.

ECOT is not the first charter school to experience political turmoil recently in Ohio. In 2015, a smaller online school was found to have misrepresented its attendance numbers, with the result being that they had to return 80 percent of the money they had received from the state.

Officials at ECOT may be trying to avoid a similar fate. However, they are wise to ask that the Department of Education live up to an existing contract. Neil Clark declares that the school “successfully passed audits in 2003, 2006, 2011 and ten other audits” that were conducted by a different accrediting body. According to his statements, ECOT is not against being audited, they simply want the government to do so within the terms of their contract.

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In an age where smartphones, social media and the Internet have led to improved connectivity, California legislators are looking for ways to prevent jurors from violating the rules. Judges issue strict instructions to jurors that they must not perform any Internet research regarding the case they are deciding. Moreover, jurors are told in no uncertain terms that they are prohibited from discussing the case on social media.

scales%20and%20gavel%2090061933-001.jpgThese warnings are often to no avail as an increasing number of jurors are being caught making social media posts or doing online research in violation of the orders. Jurors who are caught breaking the rules may be held in contempt of court. Typically, this means that misbehaving jurors are dismissed without much in the way of consequences. When a juror is dismissed, there is a good chance that a mistrial will be declared, leading to spiraling court costs and hundreds of wasted hours.

The new measure, which is currently before the California Assembly, is the first of its kind in the nation. If it passes, it would give judges the ability to immediately issue a citation to jurors who break the rules about Internet research and social media postings. The new process would be much easier and more efficient than the process for finding a juror in contempt. Just as importantly, it would empower the judge to levy a fine of up to $1,500.

Internet and social media use by jurors has been an increasing problem in recent years. Across the country, juror infractions have led to verdicts being overturned and mistrials being declared. Louisiana State University’s Press Law and Democracy Project kept a close eye on such events until recently. That’s because these violations used to be relatively rare. Now, they are so common that participants decided the effort was “more trouble than it was worth.”

This legislation seems to have broad-based support and appears to be on the way to the governor’s desk for approval. If this happens, it seems inevitable that other states will soon consider taking similar measures in an effort to crack down on wayward jurors.

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With a total of more than 1,200 charter schools, California has the largest concentration of these alternative learning institutions in the country. Students and their parents may choose a charter school if they are interested in a more creative curriculum and the higher potential for one-on-one interaction with students.

school%20bus%20%26%20child%2044980077-001.jpgCharter schools encourage students to reach enhanced academic goals. Sometimes these alternative learning centers prove to be a valuable asset for at-risk youth too. School resource officers in California have been known to divert students who have gang affiliations or who are being recruited by gangs to charter schools, a maneuver that often puts them back on the right path.

However, not everyone is thrilled with the prevalence of charter schools in California. There are no fewer than six lawsuits pending in Los Angeles and San Diego counties that, if successful, might shut down or relocate several charter schools. The main point of contention concerns so-called Satellite Facilities, which may also be referred to as Resource Centers or Meeting Centers. Supporters of these lawsuits claim that many of these facilities exist in violation of the 1992 act that created the charter school system.

Plaintiffs allege that California Education Code Section 47605 places geographic restrictions on where charter schools can be located. Charter school proponents counter that this restriction applies only to school campuses and not to Satellite Facilities. A representative from the charter schools, says that these facilities are, resource centers used for non-classroom based independent study. Accordingly, charter school supporters believe that they should be able to open such facilities without having to adhere to the location restrictions.

Defendants in the lawsuit believe the problem all comes down to money. Charter schools are becoming increasingly popular. Enrollment has soared at facilities across the state, taking away students from traditional schools. This means less funding for these schools and more funding for charter schools.

These lawsuits are still in the early stages. It seems unlikely that charter schools will be disappearing, but supporters may be in for a fight when it comes to preserving existing facilities.

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In a controversial response to a 2012 lawsuit, the private records of approximately 10 million public school students is about to be released to attorneys. The lawsuit was filed as a joint effort by the Morgan Hill Concerned Parents Association and the statewide California Concerned Parents Association. Both groups cited concerns regarding the disposition of services to intellectually and physically disabled children as the basis for the lawsuit.

Blackboard%20%21%21%21%2053226367-001.jpgThe plaintiffs allege that they requested data from the California Department of Education on numerous occasions. They wanted to take a survey of the test scores and mental health assessments to prove that disabled students were not receiving the education and assistance that are guaranteed to them under federal law. Parents involved in the groups believed that students were being systematically deprived of these rights.

When the Department of Education denied requests, even though members of the student advocacy groups stated that they weren’t seeking specific information about individual students, a lawsuit was filed. Now, Judge Kimberly Mueller has ruled that data dating back to January 2008 should be released to lawyers for the plaintiffs. The data will include Social Security numbers, addresses and other sensitive information. According to the order, no more than 10 people will have access to the data which will be accessed and managed by a court-ordered individual. Once the survey has been conducted, the data must be either destroyed or returned to the Department of Education.

Parents who object to the release of their children’s information have until April 1 to file the paperwork. However, it seems that many school districts remain unaware of the order and accordingly are not able to get the word out to parents who might not want their children’s data to be shared. Complicating the problem is the large number of immigrant parents in the state who speak little or no English. The state’s Parent Teacher Association is considering asking for an injunction that would at least slow down the release of information so parents have a better opportunity to decide whether or not to allow their children’s information to be released.

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Various people connected to the University of Central Florida appear to be the victims of a cyber attack. The breach occurred over an extended period of time, but university officials made a public announcement about it on February 4, 2016. An estimated 63,000 Social Security numbers were stolen in the attack.

Hacked%2090366158-001.jpgAlumni and former student government leaders Anthony Furbush and Logan Berkowitz have filed a lawsuit against the school in Orlando. The suit alleges that UCF knew of the data breach as early as December of 2015, yet officials failed to provide notification until February of the following year. Moreover, the complaint states that UCF did not adequately protect sensitive information.

This attack on UCF is one more in an ongoing stream of cyber threats occurring in schools across the country. In the past year alone, multiple attacks on the University of Maryland, Penn State University, the University of Virginia and others demonstrate that hackers are becoming more adept at their craft as well as targeting educational institutions on an increasing basis.

The current incident at UCF is being investigated by a joint task force consisting of members of UCF’s own police unit along with the FBI. Reports suggest that while Social Security numbers were stolen, there is no evidence that the hackers obtained any kind of financial information.

That appears to be small comfort to people like Furbush and Berkowitz, who are now more vulnerable to identity theft. UCF mailed out letters to everyone whose information may have been compromised in the breach and a call center has been established to field further questions and concerns.

With cyber attacks on university databases on the rise, this litigation against UCF may just be the tip of the iceberg. It seems clear that more colleges and universities will find themselves the target of a hacker, and that can easily lead to a lawsuit. This only highlights the imperative nature of protecting data, which in turn protects institutions and corporations from being sued.
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A Connecticut teen and his family are suing the boy’s former school. The lawsuit alleges that the boy was inappropriately expelled after an incident in which the boy is accused of selling pot-laced brownies to fellow students.

pot%20brownie%2070921206-001.jpgThe incident began on June 11, 2014. Joshua Walker-Thomas was an 18 year-old student at Metropolitan Learning Center, a magnet school for students in the sixth through twelfth grades. He and two accomplices, a boy and girl both aged 16, sold pot-laced brownies to eight students. One of the purchasers was later found by school officials in a stupor while hyperventilating. The student had to be transported to a hospital for treatment. Both Walker-Thomas and the 16 year-old girl were charged with risk of injury to a minor. Those felony charges are still pending. The third participant, who has not been identified because of his age, was not charged with a crime. Nonetheless, the school confronted him about his involvement. He was suspended from June 12 onward.

However, the lawsuit filed by this student’s family alleges that the school mishandled the suspension and subsequent expulsion from beginning to end. Among the allegations is the fact that the expulsion hearing did not occur until September when such hearings are supposed to take place a mere 10 days after the suspension, a requirement stipulated by state law. Moreover, the boy’s family argues that they were not informed about the expulsion hearing until the day before it occurred, giving them no opportunity to review the evidence. The lawsuit contends that the boy’s right to due process was ignored.

Other allegations also appear in the complaint. According to legal documents, the hearing officer at the expulsion hearing offered no evidence to support the possession or sale of illegal substances by the student. The lawsuit also protests that no audio recording was made of the hearing and further that the student’s diagnosis with ADHD was not taken into consideration.

School districts always need to ensure compliance with state laws when meting out disciplinary action.
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Childhood obesity is a hot topic, and a settlement in a California lawsuit is aimed at tackling that issue. Attorney Donald Driscoll took on the case in 2013, working on behalf of advocacy group Cal200 and parent Marc Babin. The lawsuit involved 37 school districts, which are responsible for educating one in five of all California elementary school students, and alleged that children were not receiving enough physical education.

school%20bus%20%26%20child%2044980077-001.jpgCalifornia requires that elementary school students receive at least 200 minutes of P.E. instruction every 10 school days. Previously, there were no reliable methods for tracking this time. Many teachers understood the 200 minutes requirement to be a suggestion, leading them to sometimes choose preparation for standardized tests over physical activity.

The settlement of this lawsuit demonstrates that the 200 minute minimum is a mandate rather than a suggestion. Moreover, school districts involved in the settlement are now facing strict reporting requirements. Some districts, like San Bernardino and Riverside, say that they have already enacted reporting strategies.

As part of the settlement, districts are now required to monitor the time that elementary school teachers spend on P.E. instruction. Teacher P.E. schedules must be publicly posted and teachers are also required to sign forms certifying that they are meeting the state-required minimums. School principals are being required to make surprise classroom visits to ensure that the requirements are being met.

In the Riverside Unified School District the technology department has already rolled out purpose-built software that is designed to help teachers and administrators comply with the reporting requirements. Teachers keep track of their P.E. minutes online, printing reports every two weeks to be passed on to principals for review. The principals sign the forms, and the school board receives an official report three times per year.

The other outcome of the litigation is new legislation aimed at curbing costly and time-consuming lawsuits against school districts. Complaints are now required to go through an administrative process that must be completed before a lawsuit can be filed. Hopefully, this will help districts direct more funds toward students and classrooms.

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The Chico (California) Unified School District wasn’t trying to keep information from the public when it sought to block emails from being released under public records laws, according to two district officials who were involved in the case. Instead, they say, the district’s lawsuit against a university where some officials moonlighted was merely an attempt to prevent legitimately confidential emails from being released.

Privacy%20Policy%2046679502-001.jpg“The only reason why we ended up in a lawsuit was to protect people,” said Andrea Lerner Thompson, who is a former member of the school board. Indeed, Lerner Thompson and current member Kathy Kaiser claim to have supported releasing the records. However, because both women used their university email accounts to handle public business for the district, they argued that no emails from those accounts should be released because legitimately confidential university information might be leaked in the process.

The problem began when a former principal for the district, Jeff Sloan, requested copies of all district-related emails. When it came to light that Kaiser and Lerner Thompson, along with fellow officials Bob Feaster and Rick Rees, had been using their Chico State University staff email accounts to handle district business, Sloan requested copies of those emails.

The women claim that they used the university accounts for district emails for the sake of convenience only. Even though the practice effectively hid district business records from being discovered in a district records search, Lerner Thompson says no one was attempting to circumvent laws requiring public access to district documents.

When the case reached the Butte County Superior Court, it was dismissed by Judge Barbara Roberts because all involved parties had finally agreed on a resolution. Prior to the court date, a court-appointed special master had reviewed the situation and all sides had agreed on a plan that would protect confidential university emails and release only district-related emails.

In an unfortunate twist, some confidential information included in the released emails was not properly redacted from the documents. This information was made public when the records were made available online. The emails have since been removed from the Internet.
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