Supreme Court Declines to Take Up Education Appeals

By Mark Walsh — October 07, 2013 5 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court formally opened its new term on Monday by denying review of hundreds of appeals, including education cases involving police drug-detection dog “sniffs” of student backpacks, the participation of school resource officers in questioning of students, and student religious speech at a graduation ceremony.

The first day of the 2013-14 term took place notwithstanding the shutdown of much of the rest of the federal government. The court is operating on available funds through at least the end of this week, and possibly into next week.

The justices heard arguments Monday in a case being watched by education groups about the available remedies for age discrimination alleged by public-sector workers.

But first, the court issued an orders list taking care of most of the appeals that had piled up during its summer recess. While the justices added some cases to their docket from that pile last week, Monday’s orders included rejections of most others. In each of the below cases, the justices denied review without comment or published dissent. The denials are not rulings on the merits of the cases involved.

Dog Sniffs: The justices declined to hear the appeal of a Missouri family who challenged a 2010 operation by sheriff’s deputies at Central High School in Springfield, Mo. Students in the science classroom of a student identified as C.M. were required to exit the room but leave behind their purses, backpacks, and other personal effects. The deputies then ushered in a drug-sniffing dog. (No drugs were found in the classroom.)

C.M. and his parents challenged the procedure as an illegal seizure under the Fourth Amendment. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, unanimously upheld the school district and sheriff’s department on several grounds, including that there was substantial evidence of a drug problem in school buildings.

In their appeal to the Supreme Court in Burlison v. Springfield Public Schools (Case No. 12-1423), C.M. and his parents said the dog-sniffing procedure subjects students to a “police state environment instead of a nurturing place conducive to learning.”

School Resource Officers: The court declined to take up an appeal involving whether a student is in policy custody when he is questioned by a school administrator in the presence of a school resource officer about misconduct.

The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in April that a high school student’s statements to an assistant principal about giving prescription pills to other students had to be suppressed in a criminal proceeding because the student had not been given a Miranda warning.

In addition to facing school discipline, the student was charged with felony possession and dispensing of a controlled substance and was sentenced to 45 days in jail. The Kentucky high court’s decision overturned that conviction.

The state’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in Kentucky v. N.C. (No. 13-123) was joined by the National School Boards Association and its Kentucky affiliate.They argued that the decision threatens school safety and discipline because there are many times when the questioning of students by an administrator with the involvement of an SRO could end up as either a matter of school discipline or criminal law.

Graduation Prayers: The justices declined to hear an appeal on behalf of an 8th grader, identified as A.M., who wanted to end her graduation speech at a public middle school in New York state by saying, “May the Lord bless you and keep you; make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

School administrators said her viewpoint was “too religious.” A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, held in January that based on the Taconic Hills Central School District’s involvement in directing the graduation ceremony and reviewing student speeches, “a reasonable observer would perceive A.M.'s speech as being endorsed by the middle school.”

The student’s appeal in A.M. v. Taconic Hills Central School District (No. 12-1479) argued that her remarks were private speech and that the school engaged in viewpoint discrimination in censoring them.

Special Education: The court declined an appeal from the Jefferson County, Ala., school district over a U.S. Department of Education regulation that requires states and school districts to reimburse parents for independent educational evaluations of their children with disabilities. The regulation under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was upheld last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

In its appeal to the Supreme Court in Jefferson County Board of Education v. Phillip C. (No. 12-1252), the school district said the “financial implications of paying for an [independent educational evaluation] in an individual case are such that most school districts grudgingly elect to take a nonlethal but debilitating dose of poison rather than become embroiled in extendent, expensive litigation.”

Confederate Apparel: As it has done several times in the past, the Supreme Court declined to take up a case involving school rules that bar students from displaying Confederate flags and symbols on their clothing.

Candice Hardwick of Latta, S.C., was barred from wearing various Confederate-themed shirts at her middle school in 2003 and 2004. The shirts included slogans such as “Southern Chicks,” “Dixie Angels,” “Southern Girls,” and “Daddy’s Little Redneck.”

In a March decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., said most of the shirts at issue were properly viewed as “Confederate” shirts and could be regulated by the Latta school district. The Latta schools had experienced various racial incidents in recent years, some sparked by Confederate-themed shirts, the court said.

In her appeal in Hardwick v. Heyward (No. 12-1496), the student and her parents said her Confederate shirts did not disrupt school and that administrators had enforced school dress codes unevenly.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.