Can schools discipline students for offensive social media posts? The U.S. Supreme Court will decide in B.L. v. Mahanoy Area School District

Written by: Liz Hudson

The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a First Amendment case about student social media use related to extracurricular activities. In June, 2020, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s ruling in favor of a student who was removed from the cheer team after making offensive social media posts.  

Frustrated with her lack of advancement on the cheer squad, the freshman student posted to Snapchat “F*** school f*** softball f*** cheer f*** everything” to her 250 followers.When peers on the cheer team reported the message to a coach, the student was removed from the team, but later told she could try out again the following year. Her parents filed suit in a federal court on her behalf arguing that MAHS violated her First Amendment rights. 

The school district contends that U.S. Supreme Court precedent justified its disciplinary action, especially a school’s prerogative to discipline students’ use of vulgar or plainly offensive speech established in Fraser.1 School policy elevated expectations of behavior for student athletes, preventing them from tarnishing the school’s image. Furthermore, cheer team rules discouraged “foul language” and required students to act with respect for the school, coaches, and others on the team. Negative internet posts about cheer were also prohibited.  

The Third Circuit decided for the student because the Snapchat post was off-campus speech, and, thus, Fraser did not apply. It refused to give schools discretion to regulate vulgar speech in extracurricular activities while outside of school. The court also extended previous precedent — ultimately concluding that Tinker, which allows schools to discipline disruptive speech, “does not apply to off-campus speech.” The court determined that students’ vulgar social media posts about school or school activities fall outside parameters of school discipline. Though the court recognized possible discipline for violent posts, it punted that question to another day.  

On January 8, 2021, The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The question certified by the Court was: 

“Whether Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), which holds that public school officials may regulate speech that would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school, applies to student speech that occurs off campus.”  

Legal arguments have yet to be filed, and oral arguments have not been scheduled. Look for updates from Ennis Britton as this case progresses. 

What does this mean for your district? 

Schools struggle to determine appropriate student social media regulation, and courts have offered conflicting First Amendment guidance. While the Third Circuit decision is not binding for schools in Ohio, the Supreme Court decision will be, and Ohio schools will have to abide by it when it is issued. In the meantime, Ohio schools should consider using restraint when disciplining students for social media posts outside of school, even those that could potentially disrupt the education environment or extracurricular activities. 

Constitutional Right to a Basic Minimum Education

Does a Constitutional right to a basic minimum education exist? The question has been repeatedly discussed by the Supreme Court of the United States but never decided. For states under the jurisdiction of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, including Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee, the Sixth Circuit recognized such a right for twenty-six days. A panel of the Sixth Circuit recognized the existence of such a right on April 23, 2020, and the decision remained in place until it was vacated on May 19, 2020. Prior to an en banc panel of the Court providing definitive guidance on the issue, the case settled and has been dismissed. Thus, presently, no such constitutional right is recognized. It is anticipated, nonetheless that this argument will be made in future cases with the vacated decision serving as a roadmap for making such a claim.

In Gary B. v. Whitmer, Nos. 18-1855/1871 (6th Cir. 2020), students in several of Detroit’s worst-performing public schools claimed that the conditions in their schools deprived them of a basic minimum education, meaning one that provided a chance at foundational literacy. The plaintiffs attributed the substandard performance to poor conditions within their classrooms, including missing or unqualified teachers, physically dangerous facilities, and inadequate books and materials. Plaintiffs based all of their claims on the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Plaintiffs argued that while other students receive an adequate education, they did not in violation of their Constitutional rights.

In a 2-1 split opinion authored by Judge Clay and joined by Judge Stranch, the panel agreed that the Plaintiffs had “been denied basic minimum education, and thus have been deprived of access to literacy.” The majority opinion observed:

The recognition of a fundamental right is no small matter. This is particularly true when the right in question is something that the state must affirmatively provide. But just as this Court should not supplant the state’s policy judgments with its own, neither can we shrink from our obligation to recognize a right when it is foundational to our system of self-governance.

Access to literacy is such a right. Its ubiquitous presence and evolution through our history have led the American people universally to expect it. And education—at least in the minimum form discussed here—is essential to nearly every interaction between a citizen and her government. Education has long been viewed as a great equalizer, giving all children a chance to meet or outperform society’s expectations, even when faced with substantial disparities in wealth and with past and ongoing racial inequality.

Where, as Plaintiffs allege here, a group of children is relegated to a school system that does not provide even a plausible chance to attain literacy, we hold that the Constitution provides them with a remedy. Accordingly, while the current versions of Plaintiffs’ equal protection and compulsory attendance claims were appropriately dismissed, the district court erred in denying their central claim: that Plaintiffs have a fundamental right to basic minimum education, meaning one that can provide them with a foundational level of literacy.

After a judge in the Sixth Circuit requested a poll of the other judges in the circuit, on May 19, 2020, a majority of the Judges in the Sixth Circuit in regular active service voted for a rehearing of the case, en banc, or in front of all the judges in the Circuit. By rule, the grant of a rehearing en banc vacated the April 23, 2020, decision by Judge Clay. Thus, the recognition of the fundamental right to a basic minimum education proved to be short-lived. 

Prior to the en banc review of the case, on June 10, 2020, the Court granted a motion to dismiss the appeal on the basis that the case had settled. As part of the settlement, Governor Whitmer of Michigan agreed to:

  • Propose legislation providing Detroit Public Schools with $94.4 million for literacy programs.
  • Send $280,000 for seven students to participate in “high-quality literacy programs.
  • Pay $2.7 million to Detroit schools for literacy programs.
  • Have the state department of education advise districts on literacy programs to improve reading proficiency and reduce economic, racial, and ethnic disparities.

While the Gary B. case is settled with the underlying decision vacated, the issue of the existence of a Constitutional right to basic minimum education is not. We expect this issue to be raised in future litigation with reliance upon the reasoning from the 2-1, albeit vacated, decision. 

Doe v. Ohio Department of Education

The long-running Doe v. Ohio Department of Education litigation was back in the news earlier this month. The settlement became final and effective nearly three decades after the lawsuit was initially filed. Ennis Britton previously notified clients of the proposed settlement in December when the Ohio Department of Education’s Chief Legal Counsel sent a notice to districts that a proposed settlement has been reached. To be clear, no individual school district was a defendant in this case. Defendants included the State of Ohio, the Governor, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the Ohio Department of Education. The plaintiffs – parents of students with disabilities and the students themselves – alleged that the defendants failed to ensure that students with disabilities were adequately educated in compliance with the law. 

A hearing was held on February 11, 2020, to determine whether final approval would be given to the proposed settlement that circulated in December 2019. The settlement has been approved and took effect earlier this month. The settlement covers a five year period and will focus on eleven priority districts (Canton City, Cleveland Metropolitan, Columbus City, Cincinnati Public, Toledo Public, Dayton Public, Akron Public, Youngstown City, Lima City, Zanesville City, and East Cleveland City School Districts). During the settlement period, ODE will develop a plan to improve inclusion and outcomes and will implement and monitor the implementation of the plan in the priority districts.

Ennis Britton’s Special Education Team anticipates it is very likely that ideas and expectations from the plan for the eleven priority districts will have broader application in the long run. Thus, even districts that are not initially prioritized by the settlement are likely to feel the effects of the settlement. It will be important for all school districts to monitor the implementation of the settlement and to advocate for both reasonable expectations and appropriate additional funding to support whatever aspects of the settlement plan are given broader application to all of Ohio’s school districts.

Ennis Britton’s Special Education Team will continue to update our clients on the implementation of the Doe settlement.

COVID-19 Update: What About Required 504 or IEP Meetings?

It should come to no one’s surprise that the state and federal laws do not allow for exceptions to the required timelines for ETRs, IEPs, etc. As discussed in other posts, in December 2009, in response to the H1N1 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education issued a memo titled “Guidance on Flexibility and Waivers for SEAs, LEAs, Postsecondary Institutions, and other Grantee and Program Participants in Responding to Pandemic Influenza (H1N1 Virus)” which plainly stated that the U.S. Department of Education would not waive the requirements for school districts to evaluate and assess during school closures. While the U.S. Department of Education issued a “Questions and Answers on Providing Services to Children with Disabilities During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Outbreak,” the Department did not issue any comments regarding IEP and 504 timelines at this time.

The Ohio Department of Education has issued its own Considerations for Students with Disabilities During Ohio’s Ordered School-Building Closure originally on March 17th, and updated on March 27th.

Proper planning on your school district’s and case manager’s part will be essential in determining how your school district needs to act as schools are currently (as of March 30, 2020) closed until May 1st during which you would may be required to have an ETR or IEP meeting.

My school district is in the middle of conducting an ETR on a student. Do we continue with this evaluation?

Based on the Guidance and Considerations, you continue with the evaluation of the student. Your district may want to consider how much of the evaluation and assessments can be held remotely. If you can hold the ETR evaluations remotely, then you can hold the ETR meeting during the time of the closure via telephonic or video conference means. If pieces of the evaluation cannot be conducted because school is closed, the evaluation would need to be delayed and a prior written notice for the same should be sent. If you have not yet conducted the evaluation and assessments, another option to consider is waiving the reevaluation and delaying it until return to the in-person education with parental consent or to conduct a records review. The guidance from the Ohio Department of Education indicates that all services should still be provided if parents consent to waive reevaluation. 

Are we required to hold in-person meetings for ETRs and IEPs during a school closure?

If school closes, IEP teams are not required to meet in person. However, according to the Guidance, schools must continue working with parents and students with disabilities, to develop required documents – ETRs, IEPs, 504s, etc. If a plan or evaluation for a student expires during the time of school closure due to COVID-19, IEP/504 teams should offer to meet via telephone conference or videoconference with the parents. School personnel should attempt to determine the specific services that can be provided during the ordered school-building closure period. If the parent does not agree with meeting via telephone or video conference, then the meeting should be delayed until school reopens according to the Guidance.

What about evaluations and plans developed under Section 504?

The same principles apply as discussed above for ETRs and IEPs to those activities conducted by schools for a student with a disability under Section 504 according to the Guidance. You will want to review your school district’s 504 polices to determine 504 plan review and reevaluation timelines, as there is no requirement in federal law for how often must occur.

How do we help our staff in planning for this potential?

School district personnel should look at their evaluation and IEP timelines to determine which items may expire during the next few weeks/months of the 2019/2020 school year. It would be prudent to plan how items may be advanced or to begin discussions now with parents on what the plan will be in the event of a school closure.

COVID-19 Update: Services for Special Education Students

UPDATE (3/12/20 at 6:20 PM): At 6 PM on March 12 the US Department of Education released new guidance on special education and COVID-19 that is available here.

In the past 48 hours it seems as if the already rapidly developing story of COVID-19, or novel coronavirus, has accelerated even more. With major spectator events being postponed, universities and colleges moving to online instruction, escalating infection rates around the globe, and the declaration of a pandemic by the WHO it seems inevitable that at least some Ohio public school districts will experience extended closures. These closures will raise important questions both in terms of employment and education. Given the unique and unprecedented challenges involved, we encourage you to work with legal counsel in real time to ensure effective and compliant responses.

What flexibility can we expect in meeting federal requirements for education?

We can look to official guidance issued during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic to get a sense of what we might expect with COVID-19. On December 1, 2009, the US Department of Education (ED) issued a memo titled “Guidance on Flexibility and Waivers for SEAs, LEAs, Postsecondary Institutions, on other Grantee and Program Participants in Responding to Pandemic Influenza H1N1 Virus” (“SEA” refers to State Education Agencies like ODE, and “LEA” refers to Local Education Agencies like individual school districts). The guidance document discussed in generalities the willingness of the US Department of Education to offer flexibility regarding the requirements of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (now referred to as ESSA). It is reasonable to assume that flexibility will likewise be offered as COVID-19 has begun to force school closures. We will continue to update clients as specific guidance is issued.

Specifically regarding students on IEPs and 504 plans, what services must we provide during a closure?

We are receiving many calls related to the delivery of instruction during possible closures, and specifically regarding the delivery of instruction to students with IEPs and 504 Plans. Here is what ED said on this topic in 2009 regarding H1N1:

Must an LEA continue to provide FAPE to students with disabilities during a school closure caused by an H1N1 outbreak?

The IDEA, Section 504, and the ADA do not specifically address a situation in which elementary and secondary schools would be closed for an extended period of time because of exceptional circumstances; however, LEAs must be sure not to discriminate on the basis of disability when providing educational services.

If an LEA closes its schools because of an outbreak of H1N1 that disrupts the functioning or delivery of educational services, and does not provide any educational services to the general student population, then an LEA would not be required to provide services to students with disabilities during that same period of time. Once school resumes, however, a subsequent individualized determination is required to decide whether a student with a disability requires compensatory education to make up for any skills that may have been lost because of the school closure or because the student did not receive an educational benefit.

If an LEA continues to provide educational opportunities to the general student population, then it must ensure that students with disabilities also have equal access to the same opportunities and to the provision of FAPE, where appropriate. SEAs and LEAs must ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, each student with a disability receives the special education and related services identified in the student’s individualized education program (IEP) developed under IDEA, or a plan developed under Section 504.

There is no guarantee that ED would issue the same guidance today for COVID-19, but given the parallels between the concerns in 2009 and those today, this 2009 guidance is a reasonable starting point for planning a compliant response to a potential school closure for COVID-19.

What are the special education implications of providing online instruction during a closure?

It is notable that the approach that creates the most risk for a school district, per the 2009 ED guidance, is to offer online instruction during a closure. The reason this can become a problem is that students with disabilities will need to be offered accessible instruction that meets their unique needs. It is difficult to imagine how a district might provide “regular prompting,” a common accommodation, to a child who is sitting alone at a computer. And what of the child who does not have a computer or internet access? Per the 2009 ED guidance it would be more legally compliant to not offer any instruction at all than to offer online instruction without an adequate plan for students with special needs.

This does not mean that online instruction should be ruled out. It just means that if online instruction is used there will need to be a plan for how this will serve students with disabilities. You should also consider the possibility of not immediately implementing online instruction. Given the mild winter and the fact that most schools significantly exceed minimum hours of instruction on their regular calendars, it is likely that a few days of closure (without online instruction) will not violate state minimum hours law. Even if a closure is longer lasting, pausing before implementing online instruction could provide important breathing room for student services to plan for serving students with disabilities.

Will we be required to provide compensatory education to students on IEPs and 504 plans following a closure?

The 2009 ED guidance points to the fact that a discussion of whether compensatory education may be required should follow any period of closure regardless of what services are provided. Unless a child is already assigned to home instruction at the time of the closure, any set of services during a closure will in some ways not be in compliance with the child’s IEP. While proactive amendments to account for anticipated closures could minimize the risks, it would be ambitious for most districts to secure consent for amendments for all IEPs. A more realistic approach could involve identifying students who are most at risk of significant regression during a closure, and working with parents to develop a plan to minimize that regression. Not only is this educationally sound, it would be an important part of any legal defense related to IDEA or Section 504 complaints. Once school resumes after a closure you can revisit whether other compensatory services are appropriate.

Please continue to follow the Ennis Britton blog for updates on COVID-19, and do not hesitate to call any of our attorneys with questions or concerns.

Court of Appeals Disagrees That a Student’s Right to Privacy Ends Upon Death

A dispute over the disclosure of student records has led to the Court of Appeals for Ohio’s Second Circuit to analyze whether a student’s right to privacy in education records extinguishes upon death.

Both federal and state laws protect the confidentiality of student education records and personally identifiable information. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”) protects against the disclosure of education records without the prior written consent of the parent or guardian of the student. Education records are defined by the Act as “those records, files, documents, and other materials which (i) contain information directly related to a student; and (ii) are maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a person acting for such agency or institution.” The right to consent to the disclosure of student records transfers to a student upon reaching the age of 18, unless the student remains a dependent of their parents.  

R.C. 3319.321 also provides protection for student information. This statute is broader in its scope, forbidding the disclosure of any personally identifiable student information other than directory information.

The request at issue surrounded a former student who committed a mass shooting in August of 2019, killing 9 people and injuring 27. The shooter was killed by law enforcement officials at the scene. The Associated Press, among other media outlets, made requests to the school for records of the shooter, particularly discipline records. The school released only directory information, citing to the privacy protections of FERPA and R.C. 3319.321.

The media filed a lawsuit asking the Court to force the school to release the requested records. The media alleged that while a student’s right to privacy protections under the applicable laws transfers to the student into adulthood, there should be an exception that the right to privacy in this regard ceases upon death. 

The Court found the analysis inapplicable due to the school’s obligations under the laws in addition to the individual’s privacy rights conferred by the laws. The two are simply not comparable. The Court, noting that neither FERPA nor R.C. 3319.321 contains an exception for the death of a student, declined to create one from the bench.

State ex rel. Cable News Network, Inc. v. Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local Schools, 2019-Ohio-4187