How Careful Documentation Helped a Kentucky School District Avoid Liability for Section 504 Retaliation: H.C. v. Fleming County Bd. of Educ.

Retaliation is something that most public entities should be on guard against. Numerous provisions, including the Civil Rights Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and even the United States Constitution prohibit retaliating against parents or student who engage in protected activity. If a parent or student makes a complaint under any of these provisions, it can be very difficult for public entities to determine when it is appropriate and lawful to take action when necessary.

In H.C. v. Fleming Cty., Ky. Bd. of Educ., 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 1901 (6th Cir. July 11, 2018), the Sixth Circuit held a Kentucky school district walked this line correctly. It found itself in a strained relationship with the parent of a student who was disciplined numerous times during fifth and sixth grade for bullying and harassment of other students. The student’s parent felt that the student was actually the victim of bullying and blamed school staff for failing to address the problem. She began with a “very aggressive” defense of her child and then escalated her behavior, which included among other things, the filing of a Section 504 hearing request for an alleged failure to identify the student as a child with a disability.

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Subsequent to the request, and due to allegedly disruptive and abusive behavior on the parent’s part, the district sent a letter banning the parent from school grounds without prior approval. The parent claimed that she was banned from school property in an act of retaliation for advocating on her child’s behalf and therefore decided to return to school property without prior approval. After the district filed a criminal trespass complaint against the parent, she filed an action alleging that the district violated Section 504 and retaliated against her. The Eastern District of Kentucky disagreed with the parent’s allegations and granted summary judgment in favor of the School District. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit affirmed this decision.

As with most retaliation theories, the Court relied on the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis. First, the Court considered whether the plaintiff could make out an initial case of retaliation by showing that (1) the plaintiff engaged in a protected activity, (2) the defendant knew of the protected activity, (3) the defendant took an adverse action against the plaintiff, and (4) there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action. Next, the Court considered whether the district had shown that its actions were reasonable and unrelated to the protective activity and whether the plaintiff could show that this rationale was pretextual.

In H.C., the Sixth Circuit held that the parent had satisfied the initial elements of their claim, but found that the district’s rationale for banning her from school property was reasonable and not pretextual. The Court found it significant that, prior to the ban, the district had weathered a long and difficult history with the parent and the student, including the student’s suspended from school for hitting one student with an oversized pencil and threatening to shoot another, and truancy charges against the parent for her daughter’s 22 unexcused absences. Though the parent argued that the temporal proximity in time established a causal connection between these events. However, the District’s thorough documentation came to its rescue.

The Sixth Circuit held that the district clearly had a solid basis for banning the parent from school property based on the detailed records of the parent’s “contentious and unpleasant interactions” with school staff and thorough explanations for its other actions. These detailed records demonstrated a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for banning the parent from school grounds without prior approval, as well as for the suspension and truancy charge. Since the parent was unable to produce any evidence which would suggest this reason was pretextual, the parent’s claim failed as a matter of law.

Does this mean that school districts can go banning parents as they see fit? No, it doesn’t. What it does tell us, however, is that banning a parent from school property is an action that could result in a claim of retaliation. As a result, districts considering that action should proceed with caution and carefully document the facts supporting their decisions. For parents, on the other hand, this case should tell them that there are limits to what they can do to advocate for their children. Even when relationships are strained, courts will uphold the decisions of school districts to ban a parent from school if they resort to abuse or threatening behavior.

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