High Court To Hear Major School Cases

By Tom Mirga — September 26, 1984 10 min read

Washington--Defining the proper relationship between church and state, the rights of students against unreasonable searches, and the rights of teachers facing dismissal will be among the tasks of the U.S. Supreme Court when it opens its 1984-85 session here next week.

In Wallace v. Jaffree (Case No. 83-812) and Smith v. Jaffree (No. 83-929), the Court for the first time will consider the politically sensitive issue of laws providing for “moments of silence” in public schools.

At issue in the cases, which have been consolidated by the Court, is the constitutionality of an Alabama law that authorizes teachers “to announce that a period of silence not to exceed one minute shall be observed for meditation or voluntary prayer, and during any such period no other activi-ties shall be engaged in.” Twenty-three states have enacted similar laws.

In a controversial January 1983 ruling, U.S. District Judge W. Brevard Hand upheld the Alabama law, stating that the Court had “erred in its reading of history” when it declared organized, vocal school prayer unconstitutional 22 years ago. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed Judge Hand’s ruling four months later.

In papers filed with the Court on July 10, the Reagan Administration, which vigorously promotes the reintroduction of sanctioned prayer in public schools, argued in favor of such moment-of-silence laws.

In its friend-of-the-court brief, the Administration stated that such laws did not represent an establishment of religion “but rather a legitimate way for the government to provide an opportunity for both religious and nonreligious introspection in a setting where, experience has shown, many desire it.”

“It is an instrument of toleration and pluralism, not of coercion or indoctrination,” the Administration contended.

Shared-Time Program

In another case involving the relationship between government and religion, the Court has agreed to rule on the constitutionality of a program in Grand Rapids, Mich., in which public-school teachers teach remedial and community-education classes in private schools. The program is paid for with state and school-district funds.

The “shared-time” program at issue in School District of the City of Grand Rapids v. Ball (No. 83-990) was challenged by a group of Michigan taxpayers who contend that it violates the First Amendment’s prohibition against state establishment of religion. Two lower federal courts have ruled in favor of the taxpayers.

New York Program Included

The Reagan Administration on Aug. 13 asked the Court to accept for review and schedule for argument in tandem with the Grand Rapids case a lawsuit involving private-school participation in New York City’s federally financed Chapter 1 program for disadvantaged students.

In Secretary of Education v. Felton (No. 84-238), a federal appeals court held in July that the New York program, in which public-school teachers instruct private-school students in classrooms that have been stripped of religious materials, ran afoul of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

“The two cases will illuminate each other and give the Court an opportunity to give comprehensive and informed consideration to the important issues presented by federal and state efforts to improve the education of American children on an across-the-board basis,” the Administration argued in its brief.

Student Searches

On Oct. 2, the Justices will hear a second round of arguments in New Jersey v. T.L.O. (No. 83-712), a case concerning the rights of students against unreasonable searches.

The T.L.O. case stemmed from the March 1980 search of a Piscataway, N.J., high-school student who was caught smoking in a bathroom in violation of school rules. While searching through the student’s purse for cigarettes, an assistant principal discovered marijuana and assorted drug paraphernalia. The student was subsequently declared delinquent by a state trial court and sentenced to one year’s probation.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that although school officials can conduct warrantless searches on school premises if they have reasonable suspicions of illegal or potentially disruptive activity, the assistant principal in the T.L.O. case did not have reasonable grounds to search the student’s purse for evidence of drug use.

Last April, the Court heard arguments on the question of whether the evidence of drug use obtained during the search should have been barred from the legal proceedings under the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule.

In an unusual move, the Court on July 6 directed the parties to the lawsuit to submit new briefs addressing the underlying question of whether the search by the principal itself violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. The state had never raised that issue in its appeal.

On July 31, the Reagan Administration filed a brief in the case supporting the state’s general position that school officials must be granted the leeway to “deal with incidents of student misbehavior in prompt and informal ways” in order to maintain discipline and order.

Lawyers’ Fees

In Webb v. County Board of Education of Dyer County, Tenn. (No. 83-1360), which will be argued on Oct. 29, the Court has agreed to decide whether lawyers can win fees for work done in optional state administrative procedings.

The case stemmed from the dismissal of a tenured elementary-school teacher in 1974 on charges of “unprofessional conduct and insubordination.” The teacher challenged his dismissal in state administrative hearings for four years before filing a race-bias claim in federal court under Sections 1981 through 1986 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871.

Although the dispute was settled out of court in the teacher’s favor, federal district and appeals courts held that the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Act of 1976 did not require the school board to pay the teacher’s legal fees because the teacher was not required to exhaust state administrative remedies as a condition to filing a lawsuit in federal court.

Hearing Before Termination

In another pair of employment-related cases, the Court will decide whether school employees are entitled to hearings before being terminated even though state laws allow them to appeal their dismissals after they lose their jobs.

The cases, Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill (No. 83-1362), and Parma Board of Education v. Donnelly (No. 83-1363), involve the firing of a security guard for allegedly lying on an employment application and the dismissal of a school-bus driver for failing to pass an eye examination.

Although administrative hearing officers and federal district courts upheld the dismissals, a federal appeals court vacated those rulings, stating that the employees could go back to the lower courts and argue that they were denied due process of law because they were not allowed to challenge their dismissals before they went into effect.

Other Cases

The Court has also agreed to hear arguments in the following cases:

Wayte v. U.S. (No. 83-1292). On Nov. 6, the Court will hear arguments in a lawsuit involving the indictment of a former Yale University student for failure to register for the draft after he wrote a letter to the Selective Service vowing not to sign up.

Lawyers for the student successfully argued before a federal district judge that he was a victim of “selective prosecution,” but that decision was overturned by a federal appeals court.

Springfield Township School District v. Knoll (No. 82-1889). The Court has agreed to rule on whether a state’s six-month statute of limitations that would otherwise bar a teacher from filing a sex-discrimination suit against a school board should be disregarded because “it [was] so short as to be inherently inconsistent with the policies to be fostered by” federal civil-rights laws. The lawsuit was brought under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871.

Anderson v. City of Bessemer (No. 83-1623). In another case involving sex discrimination in employment, the Court has agreed to decide whether a federal appeals court overstepped its bounds when it overturned a district court’s ruling that a former elementary-school teacher was turned down for the position of city recreation director because of her sex. The appeals court held, in part, that evidence of a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been rebutted by testimony by male personnel officials that their wives held jobs.

Lawrence County v. Lead-Deadwood School District No. 40-1 (No. 83-240), which will be argued on Oct. 30, involves the question of whether a South Dakota funding law violates the Sixth Amendment’s supremacy clause because it conflicts with a federal law that provides payments to local governments in lieu of taxes on federal lands.

Lead-Deadwood school officialsel40lfiled a lawsuit in state court against the county in 1982 seeking to force it to disburse funds received under the federal Payments in Lieu of Taxes Act of 1976 to local schools. The officials claimed the county was acting in violation of a state law directing that all federal payments in lieu of taxes be distributed in the same manner as state taxes.

County officials countersued, claiming that the 1976 federal law allowed funds received under it to be used for any purpose. Under the Sixth Amendment’s supremacy clause, they argued, federal laws supersede state laws when the two conflict. A state trial court ruled in favor of the school officials, but the South Dakota Supreme Court reversed that decision.

Review Sought

The Court has also been asked, but has not yet decided, to act on the following issues:

Can 1978 federal regulations governing Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 be applied retroactively to an audit of Title I funds spent in New Jersey from 1970 to 1972? The Reagan Administration, in Secretary of Education v. New Jersey (No. 83-2064), claims that a federal appeals court decision to that effect would drop the contested amount of misspent funds from slightly over $1 million to about $250,000 and would “substantially eviscerate” the Education Department’s ability to recoup illegally spent federal funds.

In another Title I-related case, Secretary of Education v. Kentucky (No. 83-1798), the Administration has asked the Court to overturn a federal appeals court’s ruling that 50 school districts in the state had complied “with a reasonable interpretation” of Title I regulations forbidding the use of federal funds to supplant state and local services. The dispute stems from a federal auditor’s determination that the districts misspent about $350,000 in Title I funds in 1974.

Did federal district and appeals courts disregard Supreme Court precedents when they ordered the State of Missouri to cover the cost of metropolitan-wide desegregation in the St. Louis area even though the state was never judged liable for segregation in suburban school districts? The question is raised in Missouri v. Liddell (No. 83-1721).

Can a teachers’ union force a local school board to fire a tenured, nonunion teacher who refuses to pay a “service fee” equivalent to union dues? The question is raised in Jibson v. White Cloud Education Association (No. 83-1816).

Did an Illinois school board violate the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963 by paying female high-school coaches of female athletes substantially less than male coaches of male athletes where both sets of coaches had similar responsibilities? The case is Erickson v. Board of Education, Proviso Township High School District No. 209 (No. 83-1853).

Were a nontenured kindergarten teacher’s First Amendment rights to freedom of speech violated because she was fired, allegedly for airing grievances against her supervisors during a school-board meeting that was open to the public? The issue is presented in Renfore v. Kirkpatrick (No. 83-1854).

Does an Oklahoma law that permits school districts to fire teachers who advocate homosexuality or openly engage in homosexual conduct infringe upon the free-speech rights of teachers? The case is Board of Education of the City of Oklahoma City v. National Gay Task Force (No. 83-2030).

A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 1984 edition of Education Week as High Court To Hear Major School Cases