Education Law

Bullied student's suit against school fails for lack of 'deliberate indifference,' 6th Circuit says

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A federal appeals court has upheld dismissal of a lawsuit filed on behalf of a bullied middle-school student in Tennessee.

The case was among a handful of suits filed in 2013 that sought to hold schools accountable for failing to stop bullying, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports. With the March 25 decision (PDF) by the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, all the suits have failed.

The suit was filed on behalf of Rutledge Middle School student, “DS.” According to the 6th Circuit, the plaintiffs failed to show school officials acted with deliberate indifference, a prerequisite for a Title IX claim and one of the suit’s Section 1983 claims. Nor was there a special relationship between DS and school officials that required protection by school officials, the appeals court said.

The 6th Circuit acknowledged that the school did not eliminate DS’s problems. But school officials promptly investigated complaints and took measures to punish the culpable students. That conduct did not rise to the level of deliberate indifference, the court said.

According to the suit, DS was regularly pushed and called names such as “bitch,” “faggot” and queer.” Older boys demanded money from him. In one instance, DS said three students picked him up and pushed him head first into a wall, causing a compression fracture, wedged vertebrae and back pain. In another incident, DS fell in gym class. A fellow student ran over to DS, jumped on his chest, then pretended to perform CPR. In another instance, two students attacked DS in the bathroom, putting him in a headlock, punching him, dropping him to the floor and punching him.

School officials investigated multiple incidents. In some cases, they gave the perpetrators warnings and suspensions. Teachers interviewed after one incident said DS sometimes instigated fights by making mean comments, and he appeared to enjoy the drama of conflict. In eighth grade, those who had harassed DS were placed in separate classes, while DS was put in a class with his friend. School officials finally decided to hire a substitute teacher to monitor DS for bullying, but the plan was never implemented because DS withdrew to attend a Christian school.

The case is Stiles v. Grainger County, Tennessee.

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