DID THE STUDENTS STATE VALID DISCRIMINATION CLAIMS?
Case citation: Fennell v. Marion ISD, 2014 WL 4274299 (W. D. Tex. 2014) (unpublished).
Summary: Kyana, Kyra, and Kavin Fennell attended school in the Marion Independent School District, when they alleged that they were subjected to a hostile racial environment by students and staff. Joined by their mother, Lawanda Fennell-Kinney, they filed suit against the school district and a number of district officials, claiming violations of their constitutional rights and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The lawsuit alleged that Kyana, Kyra, and Kavin ultimately were forced to leave the district due to a long history of racial discrimination targeted at them. Kyra claimed that she received a text message from a white classmate that contained an animation of Klansmen swinging a noose. Kavin claimed that a white girl and two Hispanic girls surrounded her at her locker and began taunting her. When she tried to leave, one girl allegedly punched Kavin and threw her back against her locker.
Kavin claimed numerous incidents of racial name-calling during 2011 and 2012, and that the district took no action. When Kavin tried out for the cheerleading squad, white classmates supposedly told her that “black girls weren’t pretty enough to be cheerleaders,” and that she looked like a boy. Although she made the squad, Kavin claimed that white cheerleaders ostracized her and that, on one occasion, a student spat on her.
Kyana claims that she was the subject of racial name-calling by white classmates in kindergarten, middle school, and high school, but that the district took no action against those classmates. She claims that in kindergarten, she was disciplined for punching a student who used a racial slur against her. Kyana claims that Glen Davis, the athletic director, “targeted” her for her ethnic hairstyles. Another coach, Ashley Smith, allegedly said in front of other students that she was a “bad influence” because she had a child at the age of seventeen.
The mother was involved in an incident at a basketball game, when the coach’s fiancé, approached Fennell-Kinney concerning a Facebook post in which the mother described the “bad influence” comment. The fiancé allegedly was removed from the game and the coach was not allowed to remain at the game. The plaintiffs also claimed that a noose was left near Kyana’s car but that no arrests were made and surveillance equipment in the parking lot did not work. On another occasion, Kyra alleged that coach Cynthia Manley did not allow her to participate in a game because she was absent from school and late for the bus. The mother arrived at the game and took Kyra home early. Because Kyra left early, the coach did not allow her to participate in the next scheduled game.
Fennell-Kinney filed a grievance that eventually reached the board of trustees. However, when the board declined to grant the requested relief, Fennell-Kinney withdrew her children from the school district. The plaintiffs then filed suit against the school district, Smith, Manley, and Davis under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Title VI, alleging race discrimination. The school district and the individual school officials requested dismissal of the suit. The trial court dismissed the claims against Defendant Smith, but denied the motion to dismiss as to all other claims. [Fennell v. Marion, 2013 WL 3994649 (W. D. Tex. 2013); Texas School Administrators’ Legal Digest, October 2013]. The remaining defendants then filed a motion requesting judgment in their favor prior to trial.
Ruling: The trial court granted judgment in favor of the district, Manley, and Davis. The plaintiffs failed to establish any racial animus on the part of Manley and Davis. In addition, the plaintiffs did not establish a custom, policy or practice of the school district that violated their constitutional rights or demonstrated racial animosity toward them. The record showed that the district addressed their concerns through the grievance process. The fact that the issues of racial harassment continued did not prove that the Board had a custom or policy of permitting harassment or promoting discrimination. According to the trial court, the district actively attempted to remedy the problems at the school. The fact that the Board declined to implement additional measures did not imply that it had a custom or policy of promoting harassment. The alleged incidents involved various children, and district officials responded to each incident and took steps to prevent future occurrences. These actions demonstrated that Marion did not, in fact, have a custom or policy of promoting racial discrimination or harassment. Nor did the district act with deliberate indifference toward the students. The trial court granted judgment in favor of the defendants on each of their claims.
Comments: To establish liability against the school district, the family had to show a custom, policy, or practice of the district that caused their injuries. This is a heavy burden. Here, the record showed, instead, that the district took steps to address the family’s concerns. Faced with that evidence, the family was hard-pressed to demonstrate a discriminatory custom, policy, or practice.