Iowa’s highest court has reversed the finding of delinquency for a high school student accused of harassing and intimidating a classmate when the two exited a school bus.
The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously held that there was not enough evidence that a student identified as D.S. “intentionally” created an encounter with the other student or that “she possessed the requisite specific intent to threaten, intimidate, or alarm” her classmate.
The case concerns the contours of when school bullying can lead to juvenile charges. D.S. was 15 when she had the encounter with another 15-year-old student, identified as T.B.
D.S. allegedly said a number of nasty things about T.B. But critically, D.S. testified that she had yelled the name “T-bitch” to another student, not T.B. When T.B. responded “What?,” D.S. allegedly unleashed several venomous and vulgar comments towards her.
It is unclear whether the alleged conduct led to any school discipline, but T.B.'s mother approached the police chief of New Albin, Iowa, whose investigation into the incident led to the delinquency charges against D.S.
A juvenile court judge found that there were inconsistencies between T.B.'s statements to the police and her testimony, but the judge nonetheless held that D.S.'s statements were meant as a put down, that they had no legitimate purpose, and that they were intended “to make T.B. lack self-confidence in her relations with the opposite sex and about her body-build.”
This amounted to intimidation, the juvenile court found, and D.S. was found delinquent.
A state appeals court overturned the adjudication, and in its Nov. 21 decision in In the Interest of D.S., the state supreme court also rejected the delinquency finding.
“The state failed to prove that D.S. purposefully or intentionally made personal contact with [T.B.] with the specific intent to threaten, intimidate, or alarm T.B.,” Justice Bruce B. Zager wrote for the state high court. “While we clearly do not condone the behavior demonstrated by D.S. in this case, the juvenile court committed error when it adjudicated D.S. delinquent under the harassment statute.”
Because it threw out D.S.'s delinquency finding on those grounds, the state supreme court declined to consider D.S.'s arguments that her put downs of her classmate were protected free speech.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.