A recent decision by Senior Judge David Doty in an inflammatory racial discrimination case arising in the Red Wing public schools provides a good overview of claims that a student who has been harassed based on her race might bring against a school district and its officials, focuses attention on the little-known Title VI (not its more popular sibling Title VII), and perhaps even offers a lesson to school officials.
In September 2009, the student council at Red Wing High School encouraged their fellow students to dress for homecoming according to the theme “Tropical Day”. Teenagers being who they are, a small group of students took it upon themselves to decide that Wednesday’s theme should be “Wigger Day” in homage to those white youth who affect the speech, fashion and other manifestations of inner-city black youth. As a result, on that day some 60 or 70 students wore oversized sports jerseys, low-slung pants, and “doo rags” to school.
Plaintiff Pruitt is black and was a student at RWHS in 2009. She and her mother complained to school officials that Wigger Day was racially offensive, but those officials did not take any school-wide action to address the issue. As a result, Ms. Pruitt sued the Red Wing Public Schools and various individual school officials claiming (1) a hostile educational environment under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; (2) race discrimination under Section 1983; (3) race discrimination — and aiding and abetting race discrimination — under the Minnesota Human Rights Act; and (4) negligence. The defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).
Judge Doty analyzed the motion according to the increasingly familiar standard established by the Supreme Court in Ashcroft v. Iqbal and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly: a claim must have sufficient factual content to allow the court to draw a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable. The complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, but must raise the right to relief “above the speculative level.”
Turning first to the Title VI claim, which prohibits discrimination in programs receiving federal financial assistance, the Court recognized that the Eighth Circuit has not yet addressed a school’s liability for student harassment under Title VI. It has, however, found such harassment actionable under Title IX, which Congress modeled after Title VI. In addition, several other courts of appeal have held that a plaintiff may sue a school district under Title VI for an intentional failure to address a racially hostile environment. As a result, the Court here concluded that Title VI does allow a suit against a school for intentional discrimination in the form of a racially hostile environment. (The court did, however, dismiss the Title VI claim against the school official because the statute does not support individual liability.)
Judge Doty next addressed plaintiff’s Section 1983 claim Defendants sought dismissal because the complaint failed to identify a specific violation of a constitutional right. The Court agreed; even reading an Equal Protection Clause claim into the complaint, it was still too vague to survive the motion because it did not give defendants sufficient notice of what their alleged misconduct was.
The lesson for school districts: when your students engage in conduct that might be viewed as racially harassing, do something about it!