A Federal District court in Pennsylvania has ruled in favor of Loyalsock Township School District in a suit brought by a former student asserting violations of her freedom of association, substantive and procedural due process rights and equal protection rights when the school failed to discipline her basketball teammates for bullying. The student’s claim of bullying included actions such as avoidance by other students, tee-shirts reading “out of control”, which she believed was a reference to her, and false rumors of pregnancy. The treatment eventually resulted in her quitting the basketball team, not attending her senior class trip, and not attending her graduation.
The student’s father, who was the coach of the girls’ basketball team, wrote to the principal explaining that the treatment of his daughter “has to stop.” The school district offered to set up a meeting between the student and the alleged bullies with a state trooper to discuss the situation. The district also offered to provide the student with a “female companion” to walk with her as she transitioned between classes, and the principal offered to sit with her on the bus to the senior class trip white water rafting and to sit by her side during the rafting activity. All offers were refused by the student.
After graduating, the student filed suit in federal court against the district claiming that the school had violated her First Amendment right to free association, Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection and procedural and substantive due process. All claims against the defendants were dismissed.
As for the free association claim, the Court found that the protection was really meant to protect more intimate relationships such as marriage, birthing and raising a child, and educating ones children. The student’s friendship with classmates and basketball teammates were legally insufficient to be protected by the First Amendment. The Court further stated that the school activities in which the student stopped or refused to participate was done so on her own volition.
The Equal Protection claim was dismissed because the Court found that the student “failed to establish that she was treated differently than similarly situated students.” The basis of her claim was that the principal and the athletic director investigated her complaints, when the assistant principal was the administrator who should have handled that task. However, she was unable to identify any similarly situated students whose complaints were investigated any differently.
The student’s procedural due process claim failed because she was unable to establish that the district deprived her of any protected liberty or property interest. The Court noted that the United States Supreme Court has yet to determine whether a public school student has a protected property interest in extracurricular school activities. Yet, they were able to look to many lower courts that concluded students do not have a protected interest in extracurricular school activities. Similarly, the Court found that there is no fundamental constitutional right to a public education and therefore her claim for violation of substantive due process also failed.
This case illustrates that some courts will favor a district that attempts to rectify incidents of reported bullying. Districts should continue to follow up on reports of bullying and work with the student and family to mitigate possible bullying situations.