Law & Courts

High Court Refuses Case on Parent’s Criticism of District Leader

By Mark Walsh — May 15, 2008 1 min read

The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to hear the appeal of an Ohio superintendent in a lawsuit brought by a parent who says she faced retaliation for publicly criticizing the school district’s treatment of her daughter, who has diabetes.

The court’s refusal without comment to hear the appeal in Evans v. Jenkins (Case No. 07-1210) means that the parent’s suit will go forward on a First Amendment retaliation claim.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, had ruled unanimously in January for reinstating the First Amendment claim brought by Shara Jenkins against Lloyd Evans, the superintendent of the Rock Hill district in Ironton, Ohio, and the 1,780-student district itself. The appeals court said Ms. Jenkins may have a valid claim that the superintendent had retaliated against her for public criticisms she made that were protected by the First Amendment. The appeals court upheld the dismissal of certain other claims in the suit.

The case arose out of a dispute over whether a school nurse would administer insulin shots to Ms. Jenkins’ daughter and an allegation from the mother that the superintendent had tried to bar the student from the school. Ms. Jenkins wrote a letter to a local newspaper criticizing her daughter’s school, and she filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, according to court papers. After that, her suit contends, someone in the district filed a complaint about Ms. Jenkins with the local children’s-services agency.

In an appeal of the 6th Circuit decision, lawyers for the superintendent sought to convince the Supreme Court that there was a split among the federal circuit courts over whether a parent’s criticism of public school officials must be on a matter of public concern for it to be considered speech protected by the First Amendment.

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Providing parents with constitutional protection for “purely private” complaints “greatly interferes with a public school’s ability to operate efficiently and effectively,” Mr. Evans’ appeal argued.

The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the appeal is not a decision on the merits of the case, but it does mean that Ms. Jenkins will be able to pursue the First Amendment claim at the trial-court level.

A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 2008 edition of Education Week

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