A Michigan school district did not violate the rights of a teacher when it denied her tenure because of her relationship with a former student, a federal appeals court has ruled.
In her third year as a physical education teacher in the Dearborn, Mich., public schools, Laura Christine Flaskamp became friendly with a senior girl assigned to be her teaching assistant, according to court papers. After the girl’s mother presented evidence to school officials that the two had developed a relationship that the mother believed to be sexual, the board of the 17,450-student district voted in 2001 to deny the teacher tenure.
Ms. Flaskamp sued, alleging that her rights to privacy, intimate association, and freedom from arbitrary state action had been infringed. On Oct. 5, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, unanimously upheld a lower-court judge’s summary judgment against her.
Ms. Flaskamp’s troubles began in December 2000, when the former student’s mother warned the teacher to stay away from the girl. The mother also told the teacher that she planned to tell school officials that she believed the two had started an improper relationship before the student’s graduation the previous spring. That prompted Ms. Flaskamp to go to the school’s principal and deny any inappropriate relationship with the girl.
Believing the denial, the principal recommended the teacher for tenure. But after several subsequent developments led him to question the teacher’s truthfulness about the relationship, he changed that recommendation, and the school board followed suit by refusing her tenure request.
Rejecting Ms. Flaskamp’s assertions that the action violated her right to develop intimate relationships, the 6th Circuit court found that the school district had legitimate reasons for denying her tenure. Concerns the principal had about the teacher’s lack of candor in discussing the relationship “alone provided a legitimate explanation for the board’s decision,” the court found. The board also “rationally could conclude that the romantic relationship started before graduation,” the ruling says.
The ruling found no credence in Ms. Flaskamp’s argument that the principal had impermissibly “pried into her personal life” by “questioning her about her postgraduation relationship” with the girl. Such an inquiry was valid, it held, in light of the district’s interests in “enforcing its prohibition against teachers dating students” and “because information about a current relationship may well cast light on the nature of the relationship nine months earlier.”
If it had wanted to, the ruling continues, the board could have banned sexual relationships between teachers and former students within a year or two of graduation. Even though the board did not have such a policy, the panel’s ruling says, the legitimacy of such a policy “bolsters the reasonableness of the school board’s decision.”