The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which is the federal appellate court with jurisdiction over Illinois, recently rejected an Indiana student’s claims against two school districts for allegedly improperly responding to allegations of bullying. The case, D.S. v. East Porter County School Corporation, highlights the high standard that parents must meet to prevail when seeking to hold a school district liable for bullying that was not based on the student’s membership in a protected class (e.g., race, sex, disability). Nonetheless, school leaders should continue to promptly and thoroughly investigate and respond to all bullying allegations pursuant to the Illinois School Code and the district’s policies.  

In D.S., the parents of a middle school girl claimed that their daughter was subject to severe bullying, including other girls throwing basketballs at her head, calling her fat, tripping her, ignoring her, moving her desk to the corner of the classroom, and writing “I hope you die” in her school planner. Additionally, they alleged that a gym teacher made her participate in class despite having three broken toes, and that her coaches gave her little playing time, said she was not very good, and accused her of lying about the number of laps she ran. The student reported these incidents to school officials but was not sure what, if any, actions they took in response. After D.S.’s parents each attempted to confront the bullies, they were banned from school property. In the lawsuit, D.S.’s parents claimed that the school district violated her due process rights by failing to adequately respond to the bullying she experienced.

D.S.’s parents then attempted to enroll D.S. in a neighboring school district, believing that the district had open enrollment. But after the parents explained the situation, they were told that enrollment was closed. In the lawsuit, D.S.’s parents claimed that the second school district violated D.S.’s equal protection rights by denying her admission.

With respect to the claim against the first district, the Seventh Circuit explained that the due process clause does not guarantee safety or protection from third parties. D.S. could therefore prevail on a constitutional challenge only if the school district created or substantially contributed to a danger for the student. This standard is quite high, imposing liability only if the district’s actions shock the conscience. The court found that D.S. did not show that her teachers or coaches instigated, created, or exacerbated the bullying. It was insufficient that D.S. believed school officials took limited action in response to her complaints.

With respect to the equal protection claim against the second district, D.S.’s parents did not allege that she was denied admission to the district because of her membership in any protected class. The court explained that to succeed on such a claim, D.S.’s parents were required to show that D.S. was intentionally treated differently than similarly situated peers without rational basis. The parents could not identify a similarly situated peer who was treated differently, and thus could not succeed on their claim.

Importantly, the standard that the parents needed to meet in this case was quite high, and the court did not address whether the districts’ actions were appropriate or adequate. When bullying is based on a protected class, however, additional laws come into play that require more of districts in the way of investigation and response. Additionally, note that one of the biggest concerns of the parents, and likely contributors to their decision to sue, was the district’s apparent lack of responsiveness. The case serves as a reminder to districts to keep parents informed regarding their investigations and interventions, as required by the Illinois School Code and as discussed in a prior FR Alert.