Rehabilitation Act Case Affirmed Against Disabled Child by 4th Circuit

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on April 14, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Another circuit case involving student bullying was affirmed in favor of the defending education board. Why is it that despite the circumstances of some of these plaintiffs, it so difficult for them to get relief?

The answer is a complex one, and it generally hinges on a SCOTUS case Davis v. Monroe County Board of Ed.

Student-on-Student Bullying

S.B. was a disabled student who attended Aberdeen High School in Harford County, Maryland. He endured repeated and consistent student-on-student bullying by other students. S.B. suffered from ADHD, weak visual-spatial ability, and a nonverbal learning disability. He also suffered homophobic slurs, sexual harassment, and racial threats and slurs. All of these incidents were reported to the school and the school responded quickly to each one imposing detentions, teacher-parent phone calls, and some suspensions.

S.B., through his mother, filed against the Board on a variety of theories, which were later condensed into a sec. 504 Rehabilitation Act violation suit. He alleged that the Board violated the law by allowing other students to harass him based on his disabilities. The district court heard and granted the Board's motion for summary judgment.

Bullying Based on Disability or Run-of-the-Mill Bullying

The circuit was sympathetic to S.B.'s plight and the facts, but affirmed the summary judgment. A good portion of the analysis was based on the now seminal SCOTUS decision Davis v. Monroe County Board of Ed.

Davis dealt with the liability of a school board based on its actions (or alleged inactions) in the face of student-on-student bullying. The federal laws applicable in Davis fall under the umbrella term "spending clause" laws such as sec. 504 and Title IX, both which provide that persons shall not be deprived the educational opportunities typically enjoyed by other students because of their race, disability, or other class. Davis established the rule that schools cannot be held to be liable for the conduct of their students, but "only for their 'own decision to remain idle in the face of known student-on-student harassment." -- such that it amounts to a "deliberate indifference to known facts of harassment." Sec. 504 is the federal spending clause legislation that prohibits disability discrimination.

The Fourth Circuit thought it dispositive that S.B. failed to prove that his being bullied was a result of his being disabled, as it could have been for a number of other factors. Although it was clear that what he suffered was "severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive," a prima facie violation of sec. 504 would have required S.B. to prove that his being bullied was a result of his disability. Race-based bullying and slurs would not satisfy this element.

Related Resources:

Copied to clipboard