In Bowe v. Eau Claire Area School District, the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that the Plaintiff could proceed with civil rights claims and did not need to exhaust his administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) if he was not seeking relief for a denial of a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”).

On November 14, 2016, the Plaintiff, Connor Bowes, who is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, filed a complaint against the Eau Claire Area School District (“District”) alleging that the District, along with two of its principals, David Oldenberg and Tim O’Reilly, violated the American with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act by knowingly allowing a hostile learning environment and intentionally excluding him from educational opportunities because of his disability, as well as Title VI and Title IX by allowing a sexually hostile learning environment.

Specifically, the Plaintiff alleged that the District was deliberately indifferent to the harassment and verbal and physical bullying that he suffered as a student in the District, and as a result of the harassment and bullying by his classmates, his grades fell significantly and he was prevented from fully participating in some of his classes. The District filed a motion to dismiss, contending, among other things, that the Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies under the IDEA, which requires school district to provide FAPE to each child with a disability.

The District Court, relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, 137 S.Ct. 743 (2017), held that the Plaintiff was not seeking relief for a denial of FAPE despite his claims having some relationship to his education. The District Court explained that when a plaintiff seeks relief that is also available under IDEAthat is, relief for the denial of FAPE—he must exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures before bringing suit, regardless of the law he sues under. However, the District Court, quoting the Fry decision, clarified that when a plaintiff is seeking relief that is not available under IDEA—that is, when the remedy sought is not for the denial of FAPE—he need not exhaust the IDEA’s procedures, even if the suit arises directly from a school’s treatment of a child with a disability and so could be said to relate in some way to his education.

In this case, the District Court found that the Plaintiff’s claims could have been brought in a situation in which there is no obligation to provide FAPE. Specifically, the Plaintiff could have brought his claims against the District even if he were not disabled and not a student. Ultimately, the Court ruled that the relief the Plaintiff sought was not for the denial of FAPE, but rather the denial of a harassment-free environment to which all students and employees are entitled. The mere fact that the Plaintiff’s claims concerned a school environment did not signify that he sought relief for a denial of FAPE. As such, because the Plaintiff was not required to exhaust his administrative remedies under IDEA before bringing suit in state or federal court, the District Court denied the District’s motion to dismiss relating to this claim.

Please contact Jessica Nguyen with any questions regarding the provision of FAPE and bullying and harassment in schools.