Student Well-Being

Justices Mulling Fewer Education Cases This Term

By Mark Walsh — January 24, 2008 5 min read
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Includes updates and/or revisions.

Just before the U.S. Supreme Court broke for a four-week recess in late January, the justices added a case to their docket involving alleged sexual harassment in a school district central office. But they turned down a different school district’s appeal in a special education case that several national education groups had urged them to accept.

The actions underscore how this term will be substantially less momentous for education than the court’s 2006-07 term, which resulted in landmark decisions on the use of race in K-12 schools, student free-speech rights, special education, and state restrictions on teachers’ unions. (“Ruling in ‘Bong Hits’ Case Seen as Leaving Protection For Students’ Free Speech,” July 18, 2007.)

The court’s docket is now complete for the 2007-08 term, with argument sessions to come in February, March, and April, and decisions expected in all argued cases by the end of the term in late June. The justices will continue to accept new cases for review, but barring extraordinary circumstances, any such grants will be held over for argument in the term that begins in October.

The justices heard only one case this term that directly involved a school district, and they deadlocked in that case. In Board of Education of New York City v. Tom F., the court’s 4-4 tie affirmed without an opinion a lower-court ruling in favor of a parent in a special education dispute over reimbursement for private school tuition for a child with a disability. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy had declined to take part in deciding the case. (“Court Is Split on IDEA Private-Placement Case,” Oct. 17, 2007.)

“We don’t think it’s indicative of anything out of the norm,” said Francisco M. Negrón Jr., the general counsel of the National School Boards Association, who closely follows the high court’s school cases. “Yes, the Supreme Court’s docket is less full of big education cases this term, but last summer’s rulings were enough to give school districts lots to think about.”

He noted that schools were still coming to grips with the court’s landmark decision from last term that sharply restricted the voluntary consideration of race in student assignments.

Collaborative Process

In the special education case denied review this week, the justices declined to hear the appeal of the 10,500-student Alexandria, Va., district over whether federal law requires that school officials offer a specific school in the individualized education program for a student with disabilities.

The appeal involved the IEP developed for the 2004-05 school year for a 9th grader with multiple disabilities. The district had proposed day placements in two private schools, but the child’s parents refused the IEP and sought reimbursement for placing their child in a different private school.

A 2-1 ruling last year by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., upheld reimbursement for the parents. The court said the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires IEPs to include not merely the type of educational placement proposed for a student, but the name of the school where the education program would be implemented.

The school district argued in its appeal that the 4th Circuit court’s ruling was inconsistent with U.S. Department of Education regulations on IEPs and with the decisions of at least four other federal appeals courts.

The district drew the support of a joint friend-of-the-court brief filed by the NSBA, the American Association of School Administrators, and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. The education groups said the 4th Circuit’s ruling “threatens the collaborative process and ignores the practical realities underlying the development of [IEPs] for children with disabilities.”

A Supreme Court brief filed in support of the family argued that the 4th Circuit decision was consistent with the IDEA and with case law on the development of IEPs.

The high court on Jan. 22 declined to hear the school district’s appeal in Alexandria City School Board v. A.K. (Case No. 07-541) without any recorded dissent.

Harassment Probe

Among the 70 or so total cases the Supreme Court is expected to decide this term, a handful have still attracted attention in education circles for various reasons. Those cases include one on corporate fraud that was being watched by several teacher-retirement funds, an appeal concerning potential age discrimination in the way public-employee retirement systems calculate benefits, and a case that could affect the municipal-bond market.

And school districts, as employers, also typically pay close attention to high court cases dealing with discrimination in the workplace. The sex-harassment case granted review on Jan. 18 is one example.

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For regular news and analysis on legal developments affecting schools, educators, and parents, read The School Law Blog.

The question in Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County (Case No. 06-1595) is whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects a worker from being dismissed because she cooperated with her employer’s internal investigation.

The appeal was brought by Vicky S. Crawford, who worked with Gene Hughes, the director of employee relations for the Metro Nashville school district in Tennessee. According to court papers, the Metro Nashville-Davidson County government, which encompasses the 75,000-student district, began an investigation in 2002 after receiving allegations that Mr. Hughes was harassing women in his office.

Support From Unions

Ms. Crawford did not initiate the complaint about her boss, but she cooperated with the inquiry and told investigators about crude, sexually related comments that Mr. Hughes allegedly made, including to her, court papers say.

The investigation did not result in any disciplinary action against Mr. Hughes.

Within a few months,Ms. Crawford was dismissed from her job, with the government agency citing financial improprieties in the payroll division that she headed. Ms. Crawford sued under an anti-retaliation provision of Title VII, but she lost in both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati.

The Bush administration urged the Supreme Court to take up the case, arguing in a brief that Title VII protects from retaliation those who cooperate with internal investigations.

Ms. Crawford also drew the support of the Tennessee Education Association and the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, which argued in a joint brief that the case “implicates the employment interests of teachers and others who may be called upon to testify or provide information in internal investigations of discrimination and harassment.”

The metropolitan government had urged the court not to review the case, arguing that “participation in an in-house sexual-harassment investigation, not undertaken while any [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] charge is pending, is not a protected activity under Title VII.”

The case was one of several the justices granted on Jan. 18 with expedited orders for filing briefs, meaning it could be argued in April and decided this term. But court observers say some of the last batch of granted cases may be put off until next October.

A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as Justices Mulling Fewer Education Cases This Term

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