News: CJ Exclusives

Unanimous Supreme Court rules schools can be sued for failure to stop harassment

A unanimous N.C. Supreme Court has ruled that public school students can sue their school board for ignoring harassment from other students that blocks their access to a sound basic education.

Chief Justice Paul Newby wrote the 16-page opinion. It allows a family with three students to proceed with a lawsuit against the Pitt County school board and the State Board of Education. Two of the children are autistic. The suit contends that school officials’ indifference to ongoing harassment of the students violated their constitutional rights.

The Supreme Court’s ruling reverses the state Appeals Court’s 2-1 decision in the case. The Appeals Court would have blocked the lawsuit from moving forward.

“Where a government entity with control over the school is deliberately indifferent to ongoing harassment that prevents a student from accessing his constitutionally guaranteed right to a sound basic education, the student has a colorable claim under the North Carolina Constitution,” Newby wrote.

A colorable claim “must present facts sufficient to support an alleged violation of a right protected by the State Constitution,” the chief justice explained.

Newby’s opinion spells out details of the alleged harassment. Plaintiffs argue that incidents took place over several months during the fall semester of the 2016-17 school year at Lakeforest Elementary School in Greenville.

In addition to being physically grabbed and pushed, interrupted during tests, and otherwise bothered by fellow students, the plaintiff students faced additional harassment based on lewd sexual conduct and commentary.

The students and their mother, Ashley Deminski, repeatedly informed the teacher, principal, and assistant principal about the harassment, according to the court opinion. The Pitt County school board also was aware of the incidents.

Nothing happened to fix the problem. “[W]hile school personnel insisted that there was a ‘process’ that would ‘take time,’ the bullying and harassment continued with no real change,” Newby wrote.

By October 2016, the harassed students transferred to another school. Deminski went to court in December 2017. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case on March 23.

“Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages, a permanent injunction preventing defendant from assigning or requiring plaintiff-students to attend Lakeforest Elementary, attorneys’ fees, and any additional relief that the trial court deems proper and just,” Newby wrote.

Defendants’ lawyers argued that sovereign or governmental immunity blocked the students’ constitutional claims. The Supreme Court rejected that argument.

“[P]laintiff contends that the complaint presented sufficient allegations of a colorable constitutional claim to survive defendant’s motion to dismiss. We agree,” Newby wrote. “The right to the ‘privilege of education’ and the State’s duty to ‘guard and maintain’ that right extend to circumstances where a school board’s deliberate indifference to ongoing harassment prevents children from receiving an education.”

Newby notes state constitutional provisions that support the lawsuit. “Article I, Section 15 places an affirmative duty on the government ‘to guard and maintain that right’ [to education],” he wrote. “Taken together, Article I, Section 15 and Article IX, Section 2 require the government to provide an opportunity to learn that is free from continual intimidation and harassment which prevent a student from learning. In other words, the government must provide a safe environment where learning can take place.”

“Notably, the right to a sound basic education rings hollow if the structural right exists but in a setting that is so intimidating and threatening to students that they lack a meaningful opportunity to learn,” the chief justice added.