The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last week issued an extremely important decision in Estate of Montana Lance v. Lewisville ISD, a high-profile case that has received national media attention.  The case involved a student who committed suicide at school.  The parents sued the school district, claiming that bullying and the school district’s failure to address the student’s disabilities led him to do so.  The family raised claims under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  The trial court granted the district’s request for judgment prior to trial and the parents appealed.

In this recent opinion, the Fifth Circuit affirms the trial court judgment in favor of the district and, in doing so, provides a thorough analysis of § 504 claims, stemming from (1) the alleged failure to provide an appropriate program and (2) disability discrimination.  The appeals court also discusses school district liability in peer harassment cases and ultimately finds that the school district was not deliberately indifferent to the student.

This is a very important decision for school districts.  It provides guidance for school administrators on how to avoid liability in peer harassment suits, particular those brought by special education students.  Here are the key points:

  • School districts can be liable for failing to provide educational services necessary to satisfy § 504’s requirements to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE).  Under this “failure-to-provide” theory, a plaintiff would have to show that the district “refused to provide reasonable accommodations for the handicapped plaintiff to receive the full benefits of the school program.”  The parents, in this case, could not show a violation of § 504 on that basis, because the district had given the student an individualized education program (IEP), to which the parents consented.  The parents never challenged the design or implementation of the student’s IEP.  Thus, the “failure-to-provide” claim was without merit.
  • Districts can also be held liable under § 504 for discriminating against a disabled student by denying an educational benefit provided to nondisabled peers.  The parents claimed that the district was deliberately indifferent to disability-based peer harassment that led Montana to commit suicide.  To prevail, the parents had to show (1) Montana was a student with a disability, (2) he was harassed based on his disability, (3) the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive that it altered the condition of his education and created an abusive educational environment, (4) the district knew about the harassment, and (5) the district was deliberately indifferent to the harassment.  The appeals court focused on the final element and determined that the district had not been deliberately indifferent to Montana.
  • According to the appeals court, the school district acted reasonably in response to reported bullying of Montana.  The district showed that it conducted thorough investigations, issued student discipline when necessary, worked individually with students to address conflicts, contacted parents, and followed up with students.  In addition, school personnel worked with each other to address concerns about Montana.  The school district documented the steps it took, as well as training it provided to school district personnel.  The district also implemented appropriate policies on bullying, harassment, and discrimination.  This evidence demonstrated that the district was not deliberately indifferent to Montana.
  • Under § 1983, the Plaintiffs claimed that the district violated Montana’s due process right to bodily integrity.  The appeals court focused on the parents’ “state-created danger” theory of liability under § 1983, which requires evidence that (1) the district used its authority to create a dangerous environment, (2) the district knew it was dangerous, (3) a state actor used their authority to create an opportunity that would not otherwise have existed for the third party’s crime to occur, and (4) the district acted with deliberate indifference to the plight of the student.  The parents’ claims failed because the district did not take any action to make Montana more likely to be bullied; but rather, worked to alleviate problems when they arose.  In addition, district personnel did not believe that Montana might harm himself or that his suicide was imminent.  The district did not know of an immediate danger to Montana.  Nor did it create a dangerous environment.

This decision is a must-read for every school administrator.  In summary, the school district prevailed because it implemented an appropriate program for the student and documented its timely and thorough handling of the bullying and harassment incidents.  To read the entire opinion, click here:  https://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/12/12-41139-CV0.pdf

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