Articles Posted in Education

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Toledo Public Schools recently settled a lawsuit with the Toledo Federation of Teachers. The settlement requires the district to change its policy regarding staff members interacting with the media. Allegations in the lawsuit stated that the current media policy violated the First Amendment rights of union members.

Freedom%20of%20Speech%2045907452-001.jpgThe trouble began when Bowsher High School athletic director Terrance Reeves granted an interview to a local weekly publication. A reporter asked questions about an injury Reeves received while breaking up a fight between spectators at a basketball game. Reeves had given interviews before in his role as athletic director. The focus of this interview was more personal, and Reeves didn’t have any qualms about answering the questions.

After the story appeared, Toledo Public Schools requested a meeting with Reeves. It seems he was in violation of the district’s policy that prohibits staff communication with the media without concurrently working with the district. The TPS policy says that staff members “contacted directly by a member of the media must refer the reporter to the communications office, who will work with staff and the media outlet to respond appropriately … .”

Although this policy had been in place for years it had never been enforced. Reeves had communicated with the media frequently without receiving any kind of reprimand, but the district’s reaction to this story was different. Reeves and the teachers union sued the district after he was given a “green sheet,” essentially a written warning. The lawsuit attacked the policy as being overly broad and vague.

The parties reached a settlement in which the district agreed to change its policy regarding staff members and media communication. Included in the new policy is an acknowledgement of the right of staff members to express themselves as part of participation in a free society. However, the policy also requires that media communications related to the district should be mindful of the district’s interests.

Having organization policies reviewed by an attorney is an excellent way to avoid similar situations. With the assistance of a lawyer it’s possible to balance the rights of employees with the interests of the employer.
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Schools and businesses beware. Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome (EHS) may be hurting your students, employees and customers. While Science has not yet proven a causal link between EHS and the symptoms of its growing numbers of sufferers, lawsuits are being filed here in the US and abroad.

WiFi%20sign%2068234810-001.jpgA woman in France has been awarded about $32,000 in compensation for pain and suffering brought about by an allergy to WiFi. She claimed that she was forced to relocate to the countryside because digital wireless transmissions caused her severe discomfort. Her award will be paid out over the next three years.

Recently, the parents of a 12 year old boy in Southboro Massachusetts have filed a lawsuit claiming that the schools WiFi signal is causing their son to become ill and lose focus and concentration in school.

The complaint alleges that the boy was diagnosed with EHS after experiencing headaches, nausea and nosebleeds after the Fay School installed new, stronger wireless internet equipment in 2013. The lawsuit seeks accommodations and $250,000 in damages.

The World Health Organization acknowledges that EHS is a collection of symptoms, but clarifies it is not a medical diagnosis, and the symptoms may not be caused by a single medical problem.

A number of EHS sufferers have relocated to Green Bank, West Virginia in the Appalachian foothills. Green Bank is within the 13,000 square mile radio free zone in the US. Virtually all wireless devices are against federal law in that zone.

Is the beginning of a trend of EHS lawsuits? Should schools and businesses pay closer attention to the wireless waves being showered on anyone nearby? Will EHS become an ADA issue/category? It is just too soon to tell, but we will keep you informed.

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A lawsuit brought by a former superintendent against her school district has been settled. Nancy Sebring, who served as superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools, received a settlement from the district’s insurer before the matter came trial.

Email%20%2081091615-001.jpgSebring had accepted a new job as superintendent of Omaha schools early in 2012, and was preparing to make the move when the Des Moines Register made an open records request. Officials from the Des Moines school district responded with emails that had been sent from Sebring’s work email account. Among the missives were explicit emails Sebring had sent to her married lover.

The Register publicized the emails, and the resulting scandal caused Sebring to resign from her position in Des Moines months earlier than anticipated. Moreover, the job offer from Omaha disappeared. Sebring was left without a job.

She filed suit against the district. A judge gave the go-ahead for the matter to proceed when the district protested that Sebring’s lawsuit was without grounds. In fact, the district felt that their actions were in line with the state’s open records laws.

Lengthy depositions had already been taken, and the case was well on its way to its October trial date when the district’s insurer decided that settlement made the most sense in this situation. Fearing years of litigation and appeals, the insurer made the decision to pay $350,000 to Sebring and her attorneys.

The fact that this case did not proceed to trial leaves a great number of questions unanswered. Would the court have concluded that Sebring was in the wrong for using a work email for personal matters? Perhaps the court would have decided in Sebring’s favor, arguing that her employer should have known the devastating effect releasing these emails would have had on Sebring’s reputation.

While the probable outcome of this litigation will remain speculative it nonetheless provides a helpful reminder about instituting smart work email account policies. Using a work email for private matters is virtually never a good idea whether in the private sector, and especially when employed in the public sector. Just ask Hillary Clinton!
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A U.S. Supreme Court decision made in March 2015 has led the EEOC to issue a new enforcement guidance with respect to pregnancy discrimination. The amendments may impact employers going forward, and it’s best to be aware of the changes now in order to avoid possible future complaints that could lead to lawsuits.

Pregnant%20at%20work%202822222%20%282%29.jpgPart-time worker Peggy Young sued UPS, her employer, for not providing her with reasonable accommodations in relation to her pregnancy. Her doctor wanted her to follow certain lifting restrictions. Young asserted that other workers who had been injured received accommodations similar to those she was requesting, such as light duty, but that she was denied. Her case was decided via summary judgment by a lower court, so Young took the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices ruled that UPS had committed discrimination against Young because of her pregnancy. Accordingly, the summary judgment was vacated and the case continues on.

The EEOC felt it would be beneficial to issue a new enforcement guidance on pregnancy discrimination. Much of the document remains unchanged since the July 2014 update, which was the first revision to have been made in 30 years. The amendments relate to the treatment of workers who are pregnant and include a portion that addresses light duty work for such employees.

The changes are relatively minimal and leave much of the July 2014 revision unedited. For instance, there is no change on the stance about the illegality of firing or refusing to hire someone because they are pregnant and forced leave policies are still prohibited. Similarly, employers are still required to treat both male and female employees equally when considering parental leave.

Keeping up with EEOC changes is important for human resources personnel and for anyone within an organization who may make employment related decisions. A single misstep can have serious consequences, exposing an organization to long, costly litigation that may damage its reputation. Supervisors and managers may want to consult with an employment attorney regarding these EEOC updates to ensure that they are fully understood before being confronted by these issues in the workplace.

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A lawsuit filed by an Ohio family on behalf of their bullied daughter has been settled. The family sued the Green Local School District in 2011, alleging that their daughter had been systematically bullied over the course of years at school.

Bully%20Stop%20Violence%2053127538-001.jpgThe 2011 complaint alleges that the student suffered abuse that included epithets like “dirty Jew” and being knocked into the lockers. Allegations of shoving, tripping and kicking are also made in the complaint. Other incidents involved a stabbing with a pencil and the creation of a hate-filled Facebook page. Two students in the district also created a kill list that prominently featured the victim’s name.

The student’s parents took their concerns to various school officials. Working their way up the chain of responsibility, they eventually became aware that the district was unlikely to take any real action on the case. The district had an anti-bullying policy, but the attorney for the family says that they seemed to have problems actually taking action when the policy was violated. Attorney Ken Meyers asserted that students caught bullying were only given the lightest of penalties.

The family felt that they weren’t truly being heard. They pulled the student from her school and filed a lawsuit. After three years of fighting the lawsuit the district finally agreed to pay a settlement of half a million dollars. The money will be jointly provided by the school district and their insurer.

A statement from the school district announced the settlement, commenting that they “are pleased the lawsuit is now behind” them. It goes on to say that “the Board of Education condemns bullying without reservation,” and that students are encouraged to report instances of bullying to administrators. Nonetheless, the district must submit to a U.S. Department of Education review of its policies as a part of the settlement. They have also agreed that teachers will receive enhanced response training.

It’s always disappointing when cases like these can’t be resolved in the initial stages. It’s an expensive lesson for this school district, but hopefully they will be better equipped to respond to future instances of bullying.
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A question regarding whether or not prayer is appropriate in public schools has led to a lawsuit in Indiana. Jim and Nicole Bellar, along with their son who is identified as J.B., filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Hammond. The complaint alleges that the school violates the First Amendment rights of J.B. and other students by praying before various events.

team%20huddle.pray%2011360771-001.jpgJ.B. is a sophomore at River Forest Jr./Sr. High School in Hammond. The school is administrated by the River Forest Community School Corp., and prayers are allegedly a regular practice at school events. The Bellars say that J.B. has been forced to pray before participating in various sporting events. Prayers were also conducted at the graduation ceremony where J.B.’s older sister was graduated last year. The Bellars regularly attend the school district’s board meetings, and prayers are said before each session.

According to the Bellars the prayers all invoke God or Jesus Christ and are decisively Christian in nature. J.B. complained to his football coach about being asked to pray before games. The student was told to simply stay quiet during the prayers and was also instructed that he had to remained huddled with his teammates.

When that protest fell on deaf ears, J.B. and his father went to the district’s athletics director. Eventually they took their complaint to the principal and district leaders, all to no avail. At one point J.B. was told by administrators that he should improve his cooperation with the requests of his coaches.

The Indiana ACLU stepped in to assist the Bellar’s quest. While administrators turned a blind eye to the requests of the Bellar family to discontinue the prayers, it is unlikely that they can similarly ignore a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court.

If the Bellars prevail with the lawsuit, then the school district will be forced to give up its practice of holding prayers before events. They may also be asked to pay nominal damages and compensatory damages to the plaintiffs. As ACLU attorney Gavin Rose says, the prayers “represent a serious and flagrant affront to the First Amendment.”

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Public schools that are located in disadvantaged neighborhoods must deal with a complex problem every day. A number of their students is affected by trauma. Often this trauma is the result of being the victim of violence or witnessing violence. Sometimes the student is dealing with overwhelming poverty and unstable living conditions. Some must cope when a parent becomes incarcerated or passes away.

Psychology%20Brain%2081318172-001.jpgOne of the outcomes of this trauma is poor academic performance. Students who suffer this “complex trauma” have much greater chances of being suspended. Their grades are poor, and their attendance is spotty. Many of them never graduate. Some of them go directly from school into the jail system.

A recent lawsuit filed against the Compton Unified School District seeks to address these issues. The complaint argues that these students are suffering from complex trauma, which should be recognized as a disability. They cite evidence that children who live with trauma show different physical development in their brains and bodies as a result of this trauma. Thus, they should be considered a protected class.

Many of the children who experience trauma have behavioral problems or are overwhelmed by the conditions in which they live. The lawsuit argues that Compton Unified has not attempted to provide adequate accommodation for these students. It points out that students with obvious physical disabilities are given accommodations to make learning possible for them, and that students dealing with trauma should be similarly treated.

This lawsuit is just beginning. It seems clear that winning it will require a great deal of effort. While recognizing that the problem exists is an important first step, Compton Unified would have to come up with a comprehensive program to improve academic access for these children. The lawsuit suggests that the school district should provide mental health support for these students. Moreover, staff members should receive training that enables them to recognize trauma and deal effectively with it. A shift away from punishment for issues caused by trauma is also suggested.

Time will tell if Compton Unified will begin treating students affected by trauma as a protected class.

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Teenager Genny Barbour is in an unusual situation. Diagnosed with autism and epilepsy, Genny has experienced ongoing emotional and mental difficulties as well as debilitating seizures. Her parents, Roger and Lora, spent years trying every known medical treatment. Genny had been prescribed a startling number of different drugs and even undergone brain surgery, but all those treatments were to no avail.

Medical%20Marijuana%20%2079796786-001.jpgAs a last resort Genny’s doctor prescribed cannabis oil. To the surprise of the family, the treatment worked. Genny is now permitted to use medical marijuana with her mother designated as the caregiver who provides the dosages. Lora Barbour uses an eyedropper to put a small amount of cannabis oil in a glass of soda three times a day. However, the family noticed that while Genny left for school in a positive frame of mind she returned in the afternoon in a considerably different state. It was clear that her medicine was wearing off while she was at school.

Genny’s doctor decided that a fourth dose of medicinal marijuana should be administered during her lunch hour. When her parents informed the school administrators immediately balked. Medical marijuana might be legal in New Jersey, but the schools are still a federally mandated drug free zone and marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

The Barbours filed a lawsuit to protest the Maple Shade School District’s decision to ban the use of the cannabis oil on school property. An administrative judge agreed with the district, citing federal law to support his opinion. The family has since appealed that decision, though it appears they have an uphill battle.

In an attempt to reach a compromise, Maple Shade officials offered to allow Genny’s mother to remove her from the school each day to administer the dose. Her father flatly refused the offer, noting that it would be enormously disruptive to his daughter’s day and might cause terrible behavioral difficulties.

Both sides in this fight seem determined to carry the day. Regardless of which party ultimately triumphs, this case is likely to set precedents for students and school districts facing similar situations across the country.

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The ACLU and PETA have settled a lawsuit with an Ohio school district that fired an employee over a Facebook post. Keith Allison, a Title I tutor in the Green Local School District of Smithville, was terminated from his position in August of 2014. Now he has been reinstated and granted all back pay from the months he spent without a job.

Freedom%20of%20Speech%2045907452-001.jpgThe trouble began in August of 2014 when Allison complained about the treatment of cows on dairy farms. He did so on his Facebook page, using his home computer and working on his own time. The post included a photo of a dairy farm, but did not identify the farm or the landowner.

The school district felt that the post would offend the farmer. They acted quickly, terminating Allison. He complained to PETA, and the organization passed the issue along to the ACLU. After agreeing to represent Allison, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on his behalf. In the complaint the ACLU points out that teachers do not sacrifice their right to free speech simply because they work for a public school district. There was nothing illegal in Allison’s posting. Moreover, he had not used school equipment to create the post and he was not on school district time.

The parties have now settled the matter without going to trial. It took several months, but eventually the school district agreed to pay the salary owed to Allison as well as outstanding pension contributions. The district will also pay for the legal expenses of the ACLU and PETA.

In addition, the school district has issued a statement affirming the right of teachers to express their opinions on matters of public concern, demonstrating to the children they educate that voicing a protest is a necessary component of a free nation.

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In a post in August, 2014 (HERE), the California Business Litigation blog wrote about a lawsuit filed by Cal200. That suit alleged that many school districts in California were failing to meet the elementary school standard for PE of 200 minutes for every 10 school days. Among the districts named in the suit were Los Angeles Unified, Riverside Unified, San Francisco Unified and Palm Springs Unified.

school%20bus%20%26%20child%2044980077-001.jpgThe update is that 37 school districts have agreed to a settlement. The settlement requires all elementary schools in the districts to prove they are providing at least the minimum amount of physical education required by California law.

Elementary school teachers for grades 1 through 6 will be required to document how many minutes of physical education students receive. Further, that documentation must be made available to the public.

The lawsuit was filed because PE teachers, the California State Legislature and public health advocates have had little success in getting school districts to comply with the state requirements. The requirements were rarely enforced and essentially “had no teeth”.

The attorney for Cal200 stated “We think it’s a huge accomplishment and it’s going to benefit public health in California”.
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