A civil rights lawsuit has received some assistance from the federal government. The United States Department of Justice has filed an amicus brief in a lawsuit brought by racial discrimination attorney Joshua Friedman on behalf of a group of Michigan high school students.
The plaintiffs, all of whom are black at a high school where only about 3% of the student body is black, endured a constant pattern of insults, abuse, and harassment from other students based on their race. This included insults, threats, physical altercations, and vandalism of the students' property. The plaintiffs complained to teachers and school administrators but received little to no support. The school enacted a racial discrimination policy in 2005, but the harassment continued.
The matter came to a head in the spring of 2006, when Assistant Principal Marla Philpot found a textbook in her office containing a "hit list" of black students with a series of threats. Philpot was the school's only black administrator at the time. In response to Philpot's discovery, the administration hired a team of consultants to evaluate the school's racial climate. After the 2005-06 school year, 15 black students transferred to another high school and several more dropped out.
The school's response was too little, too late for the plaintiffs and their parents, who hired the Friedman & Houlding LLP to pursue a discrimination claim. He filed the lawsuit on their behalf in October 2006. The suit claims that the school board violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race by organizations receiving federal funding, as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The suit was brought under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, which allows individuals to sue government officials for constitutional violations. Specifically, the suit alleges that the school board and school officials greeted the plaintiffs' complaints with deliberate indifference.
The defendants filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the plaintiffs' claims, arguing that their response to the plaintiffs' complaints in 2005 and 2006 were reasonable and adequate. Judge Victoria A. Roberts of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan entered an order declining to dismiss the case on March 30, 2010. She states in her order that there is sufficient evidence of plaintiffs' claims that the case should go to trial. The defendants appealed her order to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The case is now pending in the Sixth Circuit, with oral arguments scheduled for October 12, 2011. The U.S. Department of Justice filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs on March 9, 2011, arguing for a strict application of the protections of Title VI. The Justice Department states in its brief that this case raises important questions about how to properly deal with claims of student-on-student racial discrimination and harassment. The appeals court will decide if the case will return to the trial court.
Police Investigate Threat at School (PDF), Port Huron Times Herald, March 2011
Order on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (PDF), U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division, March 30, 2010
More Blog Posts:
New Jersey School Racial Harassment Case Settles, Sexual Harassment Lawyer Blawg, July 5, 2011
New Jersey school racial harassment case heading to trial, Sexual Harassment Lawyer Blawg, November 9, 2009