KY Parent Volunteer Sues School for Allegedly Disrupting Breastfeedingk

More and more, public spaces, companies, and entities are making efforts to accommodate breastfeeding mothers. As a recent example of this, you may have noticed if you’ve traveled in airports recently that small privacy pods are being installed so that breastfeeding mothers can pump or feed their babies in private. For many weary mothers traveling with babies or a bag of pumping supplies, this privacy option (that isn’t a bathroom stall) is probably much appreciated.

crescent moon and cloud wind chimes
In honor of Mother’s Day, our posts for May will discuss accommodations for expectant and breastfeeding mothers. 

Still, even if private accommodations are available, does this mean breastfeeding mothers should be required to use them? That is the issue in a civil lawsuit just filed against the Jefferson County Schools in Louisville, Kentucky. The suit, filed by a parent volunteer and member of the school’s site-based council, alleges that the District violated KRS 211.755 when its officials asked the mother to move to private office to feed her infant daughter. According to an interview given by the plaintiff and her attorney, this conversation occurred after she had started feeding her daughter. After the incident, the plaintiff alleges that she was told by school officials that breatsfeeding in the future while volunteering would need to occur in a private office. As a result of this encounter, the plaintiff claims she has missed out on other volunteer opportunities and is seeking money damages and an injunction.

Notably, while KRS 211.755 certainly appears to protect the rights of mothers to breastfeed or express milk and prohibits interference with the act of breastfeeding, there are no judicial interpretations of its meaning. Moreover, the protections apply only in spaces where the mother is “otherwise authorized to be.” Since no court has yet to interpret this phrase, it is not clear to what extent a public entity or school could make advance arrangements or craft policies to address breastfeeding by members of the public or volunteers. It is also not clear what rises to the level of “interference” under KRS 211.755(3).

Furthermore, no remedy for violations of KRS 211.755 is stated in the statute itself. This may mean that the only mechanism for enforcing the statute is KRS 446.070, a statute that authorizes civil suits for violations of Kentucky statutes. However, certain elements must be satisfied for this mechanism to be available. Moreover, some case law suggests that an action filed pursuant to KRS 446.070 may be subject to immunity defenses available to school districts and officials under Kentucky law. Since no court has yet interpreted KRS 211.755, it is not currently clear whether damages suits for violations of that provision are available.

Regardless, schools and other public entities who rely on the time and talent of parent volunteers, would be wise to review the requirements of KRS 211.755 with their attorneys. As education about breastfeeding accommodations becomes more widespread, these issues are likely to only increase. Furthermore, ensuring quality communciation and respect for the rights of mothers is a great way to establish and build relationships with the public and volunteers who contribute so much to schools.

Beyond this, advocates are working hard to expand the protections for breastfeeding mothers in public spaces. Just recently, Kentucky passed Senate Bill 18 which amends its Civil Rights Act to include protections for expectant and breastfeeding mothers. We’ll cover this topic is our next post.


Sixth Circuit Case with Implications for Employers and Schools to Get SCOTUS Review

icra iflas piled book
SCOTUS will be hitting the books to determine the scope of protections in Title VII.

Last year, the Sixth Circuit issued a groundbreaking decision in employment law relating to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., 884 F.3d 560 (6th Cir. 2018)the Court held that the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex in 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1) protected an employee on the basis of gender identity. In particular, the Court held that Title VII’s reference to “sex” necessarily included protections for transgender or transitioning persons. Citing the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins , 490 U.S. 228 (1989), the Sixth Circuit also found that discrimination against transitioning or transgender employees was also prohibited as an impermissible “sex stereotype.” As the Sixth Circuit noted, in Price, the Supreme Court acknowledged that unlawful discrimination occurred where a female employee alleged she experienced adverse employment actions for failing to “walk … femininely, talk … femininely, dress … femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, [or] wear jewelry[.]” According to the Sixth Circuit, there was no reason that this same rationale should not apply to stereotypes that relate to an employee’s gender identity.

On Monday, the Supreme Court granted certiorari on the Sixth Circuit’s decision, specificaly as to the question of whether Title VII protects employees on the basis of their status as transgender or under the “sex stereotypes” prohibition from Price Waterhouse. At the same time, the Court granted cert to consider contrary results from the 2nd and 11th Circuits which addressed whether Title VII’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to sexual orientation. Given that Title VII applies broadly to employers across the United States which have more than 15 employees, including state and local governments, the grant of cert in these cases clearly has the potential to impact school districts and its employees in and outside of the Sixth Circuit.

In addition, as Mark Walsh of the School Law Blog, aptly noted, these cases could have broader implications as well for school districts. As Walsh explained, the interpretation of one Title of the Civil Rights Act often serves as a precedent that can affect the interpretations of others. Thus, if SCOTUS chooses to affirm the extension of protections in Title VII to gender identity or sexual orientation as some lower courts have done, it could affect other federal statutes, including Title IX, which may affect the rights of students as well as school employees. As such, the Supreme Court’s decision to review Harris Funeral Homes is certainly significant for schools, their employees, and potentially their students in and outside of the Sixth Circuit.


Pending Criminal Charges Insufficient to Stay Ohio University Disciplinary Proceeding

man wearing black officer uniform
This is where we are used to hearing about the “right to remain silent.”

Anyone who has watched a TV cop show knows that they have a right to remain silent when criminal charges are pending against them. This right emanates from the language in the 5th Amendment of the United States Constitution which ensures that citizens will not be “compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself”. But, what happens when testimony is expected or necessary in a proceeding that isn’t a criminal case?

That was the issue in Roe v. Director, Case No. 19-CV-136,2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55246 (S.D. Ohio 4/1/19). In that case, John Doe, a student at Miami University faced, simultaneously, a university disciplinary proceeding and a criminal proceeding after he was accused of sexually assaulting fellow student, Jane Roe, in November, 2018. The common practice for criminal defendants in such a predicament is to request a stay of the non-criminal process until the criminal proceeding resolves. Doe did this, but because the university’s disciplinary policies expressly permitted hearings to proceed when criminal charges were pending, his request was denied. When the hearing was scheduled, Doe filed a Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order in the Southern District of Ohio to stay the hearing until the criminal process was resolved in order to vindicate his due process rights.

The standard for a TRO is a high one. In order to obtain relief, a party must show that he will experience irreparable harm if an injunction is not granted and that the equities favor granting the injunction. In addition, the party requesting a TRO must show that they are “likely to succeed on the merits”, or that the prevailing law strongly supports their claims. After considering these factors, Judge Timothy Black of the Southern District of Ohio denied Doe’s Motion.

Judge Black conceded that for Doe the university disciplinary process carried with it life-damaging penalties and that the prospect of hindering a defense in criminal proceedings was dire. Yet, the Court ruled that Doe was unlikely to succeed on the merits of his claims because the applicable disciplinary process did not violate the Due Process Clause. To reach this conclusion, the Court applied the well-established tripartite balancing test from Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976) and considered: (1) the private interest at stake; (2) the procedures used; and (3) the government interest.

While the Court agreed that Doe’s interests were strong, including his long-term employment prospects and reputation, it found that the university’s interest in addressing and promptly resolving sexual assault complaints was compelling. Although the Court acknowledged that Doe’s right to avoid self-incrimination was constitutionally enshrined, his right to stay other proceedings to ensure the exercise of this right was not. To the contrary, the Court cited to at least one past decision which found that a student received due process in a university proceeding even though it had occurred while criminal charges were pending. See Pierre v. Univ. of Dayton143 F.Supp.3d 703 (S.D. Ohio 2015).

As to the other elements, though the Court acknowledged that Doe’s situation was problematic, it was skeptical that it constituted irreparable harm because the proceeding had not yet occurred and no finding had been made against him. Additionally, the Court found that the public interest did not support a finding in Doe’s favor because, if such a ruling were entered, it would prevent universities from conducting disciplinary hearings in any case where criminal charges were filed until they were resolved. As the Court noted, this could prevent universities from resolving disciplinary complaints for months or, in some cases, years. For these reasons, the Court denied Doe’s request for a TRO.

So what does this case mean? It means that the “right to remain silent” we hear about in cop shows has limits and that it does not necessarily apply the same way in non-criminal proceedings, including university disciplinary proceedings.

FERPA FAQ Relating to Use of SROs Issued to Encourage School Safety

School safety is always a top priority for schoool officials. Due to recent acts of gun violence in American schools, however, it is also a top priority for elected officials and government agencies. Here in the Sixth Circuit, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee have passed or entertained legislative and funding tools aimed at making schools safer. At the federal level, the Federal Commission on School Safety released a report late last year with recommendations for improving school safety. While the Commission included numerous recommendations within its 180-page report, some of its suggestions included clarifying FERPA or even updating its language.

black and white business career close up
When it comes to FERPA compliance, there are indeed many frequently asked questions.

As of yet, the divided Congress has not taken action to update FERPA as the Commission has urged. On the other hand, the Privacy Technical Assistance Center within the United States Department of Education has issued a FAQ guidance document relating to FERPA. In particular, the document is intended to clarify the manner in which FERPA applies to school resource officers (“SROs”) and school law enforcement units.

The PTAC’s guidance document contains answers to 37 questions relating to FERPA implementation which may affect school safety decisions, including:

  • Can law enforcement unit officials who are off-duty police officers or SROs be considered school officials under FERPA and, therefore, have access to students’ education records?
  • Does FERPA permit schools and districts to disclose education records, without consent, to outside law-enforcement officials who serve on a school’s threat assessment team?
  • When is it permissible for schools or districts to disclose student education records under FERPA’s health or safety emergency exception?
  • Does FERPA permit school officials to release information that they personally observed or of which they have personal knowledge?

FERPA is a complex law and issues relating to student privacy arise frequently. Further, these issues are, as School Safety Commission found, compounded by constantly evolving technological issues in the school setting. Guidance as to the implementation of FERPA at the local level is therefore welcome. Whether these measures will be sufficient to address broader issues relating to school safety in general or gun violence in particular, however, remains to be seen.

Standard of Reasonableness Prevails in Sixth Circuit’s First IDEA Peanut Allergy Case

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Peanut allergies are common in public schools today.

In litigation instituted under the IDEA, parents and school districts are often at odds about almost everything. One thing that they tend to agree on, however, is that the safety of the student is of critical importance. There tends to be a disconnect, however, about the meaning of the term “safety” when one compares the perspective of parents and school officials. This disconnect is front and center in IDEA cases involving allergies because, in some cases, the quality of a plan for a student can have life and death consequences. This can be compounded when a student’s disabilities may prevent or inhibit him or her from relaying signs and symptoms to teachers. Nevertheless, although the IDEA requires schools to consider a student’s health or functional needs in evaluating students and developing IEPs, see 34 CFR 300.304(b)(4); 34 CFR 300.324(a)(iv); it does not impose clear procedures for addressing allergies specifically.

The common practice for many districts is to address allergy needs in the form of a written health plan developed in conjunction with the student’s physician and school nursing staff. In conjunction with this, IEPs are often updated to include information about the allergy and its impact on the student’s education or placement. But, for parents who understandably want nothing short of a guarantee of their children’s safety, the question inevitably arises as to whether the IDEA requires schools to do more? In the recent decision, Barney v. Akron Bd. of Educ, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 5437 (6th Cir. 2019), the Sixth Circuit says “no.”

In Barney, an IDEA-eligible student had a peanut allergy for which the school had developed a written health plan. Among other things, it called for the limitation of peanut products in his classroom and permitted the provision of medication if a reaction occurred at school. His IEP also included information about the allergy and his health plan. Despite the precautions in the plan, food servers accidentally sent sealed containers of peanut butter to the student’s classroom on one occasion. A staff member in the room noticed the error early on and sent the student to another room to eat lunch as a precaution. Nonetheless, the parent came to school after learning of the incident, contended contra the observations of school staff that he was having an allergic reaction, and took him to the hospital. Notably, the record was silent as to whether the student was in fact diagnosed with a reaction at the hospital. Regardless, a few days later the parent withdrew the student from school and filed for an IDEA due process hearing..

At every level of the proceedings, the parent’s claims were rejected. No procedural or substantive violations of the IDEA were found and the student’s health plan was found to be adequate. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit agreed. Citing the long-standing rule that a student’s IEP need only be “reasonably calculated” to provide educational benefit to satisfy the IDEA, the Court found that the allergy had been sufficiently addressed in the student’s IEP and health plan. In other words, the Court was not concerned that the school’s plan was not perfect because the student may have had a reaction at school. Rather, the Court was satisfied that the district’s plan appeared to make reasonable attempts to keep the student safe at school notwithstanding his allergy.

Although peanut and other allergies are common in public schools today, Barney is the first time that the Sixth Circuit has set a standard for accounting for student allergies under the IDEA. As such, this decision is critical becuase it will provide a road map for District Courts, hearing officers, and state-level review panels in deciding IDEA claims relating to student allergies in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and Michigan.