Ga. Lawsuit Over Parental Rights May Go to Trial

By Mark Walsh — August 06, 1997 4 min read

A high-profile lawsuit alleging that the principal and counselor of a Georgia middle school violated a couple’s parental rights by helping the couple’s two daughters get pregnancy tests and contraceptives may proceed to trial, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge William C. O’Kelley last month allowed the suit filed by Waymon F. and Sharon M. Earls to go forward against the principal and school counselor at Stephens County Middle School in Toccoa, Ga. However, the judge dismissed the Stephens County school district and its former superintendent as defendants in the suit.

The case has been widely cited by advocates of greater legal authority for parents to control their children’s upbringing and protect them from such practices as mandatory sex education in the public schools. (See Education Week, Feb. 14, 1996.)

A lawyer for the Earls told a U.S. Senate committee in 1995 of the parents’ outrage at finding contraceptives in their daughters’ possession. The girls obtained the contraceptives after the counselor, Ann Mills, took them to the county health department for pregnancy tests.

School officials have said they are unable to publicly discuss the details of the case. But according to the facts as laid out by Judge O’Kelley, the school principal, James Bellamy, gave permission for the girls to be taken to the health department in part because he “was aware of past physical abuse of the Earls children by their father.”

The two daughters, ages 13 and 15 at the time, also had told the school counselor that they might be pregnant and that they feared the reaction of their father, according to court documents.

Matthew J. Glavin, an Atlanta-based lawyer for the Earls, said school officials never reported any alleged physical abuse of the children to authorities, as they would be required by law to do.

The Earls argue in their suit that school officials knew the girls would get contraceptives at the health department; the counselor and the principal deny this.

Judge O’Kelley allowed the parental-rights claim to go forward against the counselor and principal as individuals, but not in their official capacities.

“We’re at a loss to understand what the alleged constitutional violation is,” said Phillip Hartley, a lawyer for the district and the individual defendants.

Mr. Glavin, the president of the Atlanta-based Southeastern Legal Foundation, hailed the July 21 ruling.

“The fact that the school officials may be personally liable for their actions should send a powerful message to school officials everywhere,” he said.

An Idaho school district violated a principal’s religious rights by demoting him after he announced plans to remove his children from public schools to teach them at home, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A panel of the US. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit voted 2-1 to uphold a jury’s $300,000 damages award to Frank Peterson, the former principal of Paul Elementary School in the Minidoka County district.

Mr. Peterson had been a principal for 15 years when in early 1992 he told his superiors that he and his wife planned to pull their eight school-age children from public schools and begin instructing them at home. The Petersons, who have a total of 12 children, are Mormons. They told administrators they wanted to include God in all their children’s lessons.

The idea caused turmoil at Mr. Peterson’s school and another elementary school that his children attended, according to trial testimony.

District Superintendent Michael Bishop feared that public school parents would lose confidence in the principal if he home-schooled his own children. He also feared that home schooling would interfere with Mr. Peterson’s duties as a principal. The superintendent reassigned Mr. Peterson to an elementary teaching job, and the school board ratified the change.

Mr. Peterson refused to accept the demotion. After an unsuccessful search for work in other districts, he took a lower-paying job as a truck driver and then started his own short-lived trucking business.

Mr. Peterson and hi wife sued the district and administrator in federal court, charging that the demotion violated, among other things, their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.

A federal district judge granted summary judgment in their favor on the free-exercise claim. A jury awarded them $300,000 in damages.

The school district appealed. But the appeals court majority ruled that district officials did not have compelling reasons for impinging on Mr. Peterson’s religious rights.

“The district could only assert a compelling interest if well-informed persons understood Peterson’s action as a vote of no confidence in the school system rather than as the practice of his religion,” the July 8 majority opinion by US. Circuit Judge John T. Noonan said.

A Washington state jury has awarded $600,000 in damages to a former private school head who lost her job after seeking a three-month leave of absence to grieve her daughter’s death.

Joan Booms, the head of the Overlake School in the Seattle suburb of Redmond, asked the school’s board of directors for the summertime leave in 1993. Her daughter died in April of that year at age 24, after bouts with cancer, meningitis, and a coma.

Board members said at the time that Ms. Booms lacked the support of parents and the faculty and that they had no choice but to place her on indefinite leave, which the principal’s lawyer argued was the same as dismissal.

Ms. Booms sued the board under a state anti-discrimination law. She argued that her “chronic-depressive episode” constituted a disability for which she could not be dismissed.

A jury in King County Superior Court agreed, awarding Ms. Booms damages. She did not seek reinstatement to her job and is now attending law school, her lawyer said.

A trial judge approved the verdict last month, but the school is expected to appeal.

A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 1997 edition of Education Week