Facts: The parents of a student, suspended for harassing two younger, disabled students, filed suit against the school district, claiming that the boy’s suspension violated his First Amendment and due process rights. The record showed that, over the course of several days, several older boys followed two younger students home after school and engaged in teasing that escalated into sexually-charged comments, teasing, and insults. The two younger students were both disabled. On one occasion, an instructional aide happened to ride her bike past the group and became concerned by their posture. She had the older boys leave and talked to the two younger students, who told her what had been going on. The next day, the instructional aide reported the matter to school authorities, who launched an investigation. While the main perpetrator, C.R., denied any wrongdoing, the other boys admitted to the allegations. As a result, all of the boys including C.R., were disciplined. C.R. was disciplined for harassing the other students, lying during the investigation, and also disobeying a directive that he not talk to other students regarding the investigation.
Ruling: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the judgment in favor of the school district. The court of appeals held that, although the sexually harassing conduct occurred off campus, the district was justified in disciplining the student because that the incident began shortly after school let out, on a path that began at the schoolhouse door, and only a few hundred feet away. In addition, school officials could have reasonably expected the students to discuss the harassment in school and that the matter would spill into the school environment. The court observed that schools have the authority to discipline students for engaging in sexually harassing and inappropriate speech, such as the speech in which the plaintiff engaged. The student’s suspension also did not violate his right to due process because he was provided informal notice of the charges against him and an opportunity to tell his side of the story, which was all that was required under the due process clause under these circumstances. The court of appeals, therefore, affirmed the judgment in favor of the district.