A federal judge’s decision this week illustrates the problems lawyers will have making the case that the failure of school officials to prevent bullying amounts to a violation of constitutional rights.
By all accounts, Dana Reyna’s daughter, K.M.R., had two horrible years when she attended Kenneth Cooper Middle School between 2007 and 2009. The school is part of the Oklahoma County Independent School District and is located in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
K.M.R. missed the beginning of sixth grade in the fall of 2007 due to illness. When she returned to school in January 2008, she had trouble fitting in, to say the least.
According to Reyna, her daughter was subjected to ridicule and threats by other students, so much so that K.M.R.’s psychotherapist diagnosed her with severe depression and recommended that she be removed from school.
After spending the remainder of sixth grade in a private school, K.M.R. returned to Kenneth Cooper Middle School for seventh grade in the fall of 2008. Reyna alleges that, upon her return, K.M.R. was tormented by certain of her classmates, experiencing such humiliations as having her keys thrown in a toilet, lunch card cut up and home toilet-papered.
K.M.R. also allegedly became the subject of classmates’ vicious MySpace posts, although school officials ultimately determined that the posts didn’t cross the line into cyberbullying. School officials also intervened on K.M.R.’s behalf when Reyna complained of the bullying, talking to the students involved and in at least one instance issuing a detention.
However, the bullying continued. Finally, Reyna removed K.M.R. from school for good in May 2009 and moved out of the school district. The final staw came when Reyna learned that her daughter allegedly had become the object of a “hate club” organized by other students.
In October 2009, Reyna filed a §1983 suit in Oklahoma state court against the school district, the school superintendent, an assistant superintendent, the principal, an assistant principal, a counselor, a nurse, and four teachers. Reyna alleged that eight students bullied K.M.R. at school and at non-school events, causing the girl to suffer severe depression and migraine headaches.
Reyna’s bullying claim was predicated on the “state-created danger” theory. She alleged that school officials and employees failed to take appropriate steps to protect K.M.R. from her tormenters.
The defendants removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma and the school district succeeded in having the §1983 claim against it dismissed. U.S. District Judge Timothy D. DeGiusti granted the district’s motion on the basis that Reyna’s complaint failed to allege that the school district had an official policy endorsing bullying or refusing to address bullying, or had a custom or practice of allowing bullying.
Thursday, Judge DeGiusti granted summary judgment to the individual defendants in the case, concluding that Reyna failed to allege sufficient facts from which to establish the school employees’ liability under the “danger creation” theory. The judge explained:
The facts do not suggest school employees acted in a way that created a danger of bullying to K.M.R. or increased her vulnerability to bullying, nor do the facts establish that any employee consciously disregarded a substantial risk of serious harm to K.M.R. Further, Plaintiffs have failed to present properly-supported facts to establish conduct by school employees that would satisfy the conscience-shocking standard established by existing case law. At most, Plaintiffs have put forth facts suggesting that some school employees may have been negligent in not more appropriately addressing K.M.R.’s medical needs or her mother’s complaints of bullying. However, “negligent government conduct is insufficient to prove liability under §1983.”
– Pat Murphy