The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois recently dismissed a case against a school district, in which a student and her parents alleged that the school district failed to protect her from bullying by classmates, which deprived her of access to a “free appropriate public education.”

In Kuhner v. Highland Community Unit School District No. 5, successfully defended by Stephanie Jones and Michelle Todd, the court held that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) requires exhaustion of IDEA’s administrative procedures (i.e., a due process hearing) prior to bringing suit, regardless of the law the plaintiff invokes as the basis for her claim.

J.K., a student enrolled in a special education program, alleged that she was bullied, intimidated, and harassed by several students of Highland High School beginning in early November 2013, due to her learning disability. The incidents included students calling J.K. names such as “fat,” “ugly,” “whore,” and “skank,” and making pig noises at her.

J.K. alleged that, in December 2013, she was physically shoved into a door by a male student, pushed into lockers by other students while walking in the hallways, and tripped while walking up the stairwell.

Although J.K. and her parents notified her special education teacher and case worker, the parents allege that no action was taken, and the alleged bullying allegedly continued until J.K. stopped attending classes at the end of December 2013, and began homebound instruction. Thereafter, in January 2014, J.K. attempted suicide and was hospitalized. In April 2014, J.K. returned to school for one week before resuming homebound instruction for the remainder of the school year. At the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, J.K. attempted to return to school once again, but only attended classes on the first day. She has not attended classes at Highland High School since August 13, 2014.

J.K.’s parents filed a lawsuit against the school district pursuant to a variety of civil rights statutes, alleging emotional and physical injuries and deprivation of J.K.’s access to a public education. The school district filed a Motion to Dismiss, arguing that J.K. and her parents failed to exhaust administrative remedies under the IDEA and that the district was not liable for injuries due to tort immunity.

Generally, IDEA covers any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child or the provision of a free appropriate public education to such child. Where the plaintiff seeks relief that is available under the IDEA, she must follow the IDEA’s administrative procedures and exhaust such procedures prior to bringing suit.

In this case, there was no dispute regarding the fact that J.K. did not exhaust her remedies available under the IDEA. However, J.K. and her parents argued that they had nothing to gain from administrative exhaustion under the IDEA. Instead, J.K. and her parents sought monetary damages, which are unavailable under the IDEA.

The District Court held that J.K. and her parents were seeking relief available under the IDEA despite not invoking the IDEA as the basis for their claims. The court reasoned that merely requesting monetary damages does not remove a cause of action from the ambit of the IDEA. The court found that where the plaintiff requests monetary damages so that she can compensate for failures of the school district that could be provided in-kind by the school district, the request was really one for relief available under the IDEA, which required exhaustion of administrative remedies.

Therefore, the court dismissed J.K.’s claims regarding her emotional distress and depreciation of access to a public education and advised her to complete the IDEA administrative process pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f). With regard to J.K.’s claims of physical injuries, the court granted J.K. leave to amend her complaint to address those claims where remedy is unavailable under the IDEA.

Bullying claims and issues continue to give rise to litigation and potential school district and administrator liability. Contact Michelle Todd or Stephanie Jones with your bullying inquiries.