Articles Posted in School District Law

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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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Now is an excellent time for employers to assess their compensation policies. That’s because the New Year activated California’s Fair Pay Act. Analysts say it’s one of the country’s toughest equal pay laws, and the consequences are serious for companies that are found to be in violation.

Fair%20Pay%2070618813-001.jpgThe new legislation was signed in October 2015 by Governor Jerry Brown. It’s essentially an amendment to the state’s existing fair pay laws, which have been in place for several decades. Federal laws also ensure equal pay for workers regardless of gender or other characteristics. However, this new legislation puts more of the onus on employers to ensure that they are fairly paying employees.

Democratic state senator Hannah-Beth Jackson introduced the bill earlier in 2015 in the wake of actress Patricia Arquette’s Oscar acceptance speech that called for an end to the gender pay gap. A key component of the new law is the requirement for employers to be able to prove that they are paying employees of both sexes the same compensation for “substantially similar work.” The law asks employers to look beyond titles, assessing actual duties performed and responsibilities assumed, when settling questions of pay. If disparities exist between the compensation for male and female workers who perform substantially similar work, then the employer must be able to articulate a non-gender based reason why the disparity exists.

Employers can use distinctions like seniority and merit to justify offering higher compensation to men when compared to women in a similar role. It is advisable for employers to assess and document such decisions in case questions or disputes arise at a later date. Similarly, the new law is forcing many employers to dig deep into company archives to assess the current salaries of employees and decide whether or not such disparities already exist.

While a full-scale, company-wide audit of employee compensation is neither easy nor inexpensive, it is far preferable to being made the subject of a class-action lawsuit. Employers may want to contact employment law attorneys to learn more about how to protect themselves in light of the new fair pay law.

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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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The NLRB handed down a decision that appears to be a win for employers. In the case of Shore Point Distribution Co., the NLRB found that there was no wrongdoing on the part of the employer when they installed a GPS tracking device in an employee’s work truck. The device helped the employer prove that the employee was stealing time and was instrumental in the employee’s dismissal.

GPS%20navigation%2085141634-001.jpgShore Point became suspicious of the employee, a route driver for the beverage distribution company, who seemed to take significantly longer on his routes than other drivers. Suspecting that the employee was stealing time, the employer hired a private investigator to follow the driver. Shore Point’s employees are unionized. A bargaining agreement allowed the employer to engage a private investigator for this purpose. However, Shore Point went further by installing a GPS tracker in the driver’s work truck.

The use of GPS devices is not specifically included in the existing bargaining agreement. This became a point of contention between Shore Point and the union, with the union arguing that the employer should have bargained for the right to install the GPS unit. On the surface, it looked as though the NLRB might agree with the union. However, they went the other way.

The NLRB found that the GPS was only used by the private investigator once to locate the employee when he temporarily lost sight of the truck. Because this use did not seem to materially affect the conditions of employment, the NLRB argued that Shore Point did not have to bargain for the right to install and use the device.

This decision seems like a win for employers, but it still makes a great deal of sense to proceed with caution before installing GPS devices on company vehicles.
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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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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 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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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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