S.B. v. BD. OF EDUC. OF HARFORD CNTY., No. 15-1474

Decided: April 8, 2016

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s granting of summary judgment to the Board.

Throughout his years at Aberdeen High School in Harford County, Maryland, disabled student S.B. was subject to severe student-on-student bullying, including homophobic insults, sexual harassment, and physical threats. S.B. or his parents reported most of these incidents to the school, and every reported incident was investigated by the school. In response to nearly every case, the school disciplined the offenders, and in the first half of 2013, S.B was assigned a paraeducator to accompany S.B. during the school day, help ensure his safety, and act as an objective witness to any incidents of harassment. Around the same time,  the school took several actions against S.B.’s stepfather, T.L., who as a teacher and athletic director at the school, including disallowing T.L. completion of his master’s degree practicum on-site at the school, not providing T.L. with tickets to a student-athlete banquet, and not selecting T.L. to teach the school’s summer physical education class in 2013 despite T.L. having taught it the past three years. As a result, a complaint was filed against the Board of Education of Harford County alleging the Board had violated § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act through disability-based discrimination against S.B. in failing to prevent the student-on-student bullying and retaliation against T.L. when he advocated on behalf of S.B. Following discovery, the district court granted summary judgment to the Board in April 2014.

In analyzing S.B. claim of discrimination, the Court noted that the district court properly applied the deliberate indifference standard established by Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, which requires S.B. show, among other things, that the student-on-student harassment was based on his disability and the school knew of and was deliberately indifferent to the disability-based harassment. Further, the Court agreed with the district court’s analysis that regardless of the basis of the harassment S.B. faced, there is no evidence suggesting the Board was deliberately indifferent to it. In fact, the evidence conclusively showed the opposite, and instead of acting with indifference, the school investigated each reported incident, punished offenders in almost every case, and even assigned a paraeducator to accompany S.B. during the school day.

Similarly, the Court also agreed with the district court’s finding that T.L. failed to show a causal connection between the adverse actions against T.L. and his advocacy on behalf of S.B, which no one disputed was a protected activity for the purposes of a retaliation claim under the framework for a prima facie case of retaliation prescribed in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green. Although the Court believed that the school’s decision to not select T.L. to teach the summer class he had previously taught for three years constituted a materially adverse action, T.L. failed to show anything more than a temporal proximity between that action and his protected activity, which by itself is insufficient to defeat a summary judgment claim once the school principal offered a convincing, non-retaliatory explanation for the action.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the district court.

Full Opinion

Charlotte Harrell

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