School Board Member Was Not Denied Constitutional Rights When He Was Censured by School Board

A Board member who was denied access to confidential student and personnel information after he previously disclosed confidential student record information was not deprived of a constitutionally protected interest or his Due Process rights when he was censured. In Earnest v. Board of Education of Jasper County Community Unit School District. No. 1, et al., a case defended by HLERK, a Board member, Jed Earnest, brought an action in federal court against the Board as a whole, the Superintendent, and the individual Board members.

The events leading to the lawsuit began when Mr. Earnest forwarded an email that was sent to the Board members and contained student record information to individuals outside of the District without authorization from the student’s parents. Such disclosure was a violation of the Illinois School Student Records Act and exposed the District to liability.  As a result of the unauthorized disclosure, the Board took three actions. First, it stopped providing Mr. Earnest with electronic copies of confidential information, including confidential student records and personnel information. Second, the Board voted on a resolution to censure Mr. Earnest after providing him two opportunities to be heard at two separate Board meetings. Mr. Earnest failed to appear at either Board meeting and did not request an extension. Instead, Mr. Earnest submitted a written statement, which was read during the Board meeting. Third, representatives of the Board approached the Regional Superintendent regarding the removal of Mr. Earnest as a Board member. Despite these three actions by the Board, Mr. Earnest remained on the Board and continued to actively participate.

On December 22, 2017, Mr. Earnest filed his lawsuit, alleging that he was effectively deprived of his elected position on the Board, his reputation was damaged, and his chances of re-election and real estate development were hurt. Additionally, Mr. Earnest alleged that he was denied his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The court disagreed, concluding that neither Mr. Earnest’s constitutional rights nor his due process rights were infringed.

With respect to his constitutional rights, the court addressed both liberty and property interests.  The court concluded that Mr. Earnest faced no alteration of legal status and was able to effectively execute the duties of a Board member. Despite not having access to the all the records all of the time, “the level of impairment did not rise to a level where it could be said he was effectively removed from his position.” Although Mr. Earnest’s reputation may have been damaged, the court noted that is not enough to establish a deprivation of a constitutional interest.

With respect to the due process claim, the court readily determined that the Board gave Mr. Earnest reasonable notice of the censure and a meaningful opportunity to be heard. Mr. Earnest was provided with two notices and opportunities to be heard before the Board. He chose to not attend either. Additionally, the judge considered Mr. Earnest’s private interests, the chances of an erroneous deprivation, and the Board’s interest in determining whether there was a deprivation of a constitutional right.  The Board has a strong interest in keeping student, teacher and principal records confidential and, if it did not, “it could be liable for that failure and risk[ ] losing federal funding.” The Board’s interests, according to the court, outweighed the interests of Mr. Earnest, especially because he was given an opportunity to be heard.

The court found that the Mr. Earnest’s constitutional rights were not violated and granted the Board of Education’s motion for summary judgment, concluding the case.

Contact Babak Bakhtiari with your inquiries about this case or the constitutional rights of Board members.

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