Student Properly Disciplined for Off-Campus Behavior

By September 27, 2016 News No Comments

In C.R. v. Eugene School District 4J, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (which does not govern Illinois) affirmed a district court decision holding that a school district had the right to suspend a student for off-campus, sexually harassing comments he made toward two younger students as they were walking home from school.

C.R., a seventh-grade student in Oregon, began following two disabled sixth-grade students home from school.  The students took the same route home – a bike path leading from the school, across a public park, to a neighboring street.  Where the public park borders the school’s athletic fields, there is no visible boundary to indicate where the school property ends and the park begins.  During this daily walk home, C.R. continually harassed the two disabled sixth-grade students, often using jokes that were sexual in nature.

One afternoon an instructional aide at the school, while biking home on the very same path in the public park, noticed the bullying.  She reported the incident to the school the next day, prompting an informal investigation.  C.R. was informed of the allegations against him and interviewed. C.R.  admitted to making inappropriate comments that were sexual in nature.  Based on his admission, the school imposed a two-day, out-of-school suspension for sexual harassment.

At the time, the school district had a “door-to-door” policy, which the administration contended gave it the right to suspend C.R. for his off-campus speech since it occurred while he was walking home from school.  C.R.’s parents, however, alleged that the suspension violated his First Amendment rights because his speech did not occur on school property.  They also alleged that the suspension violated his procedural and substantive due process rights.

In addressing the First Amendment claim, the Ninth Circuit highlighted that the speech at issue occurred: (1) exclusively between students; (2) in close temporal and physical proximity to the school; and (3) on property that was not obviously demarcated from the campus itself.  Based on these factual determinations, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the off-campus speech was closely tied to the school (i.e., a “nexus” to the school existed) and that given this nexus to the school, it was reasonably foreseeable that the harassment’s effects would spill over into the school environment.  It further added that a school may act to ensure that students are able to leave the school safely without implicating the rights of students to speak freely in the broader community.

Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit concluded that C.R.’s suspension did not violate his First Amendment rights.  The court emphasized that its decision is necessarily restricted to the unique facts presented by this case.

The Ninth Circuit also addressed C.R.’s due process claims.  Since it is undisputed that C.R. was informed of the charges against him and had an opportunity to tell his side of the story, the court concluded that the school district did not violate C.R’s procedural due process rights.  Furthermore, in response to C.R.’s claim that the recorded reason of his suspension, “harassment–sexual,” was so strong that he was deprived of his right to a good reputation, the court concluded that C.R. had failed to show that he has a substantive due process interest in maintaining a clean, non-stigmatizing school disciplinary record.

While this case is not binding in Illinois, the Oregon school district’s decision to discipline a student for conduct that occurred while traveling to or from school falls squarely within the IASB’s recently updated policy on Student Behavior (7:190).  Additionally, the Ninth Circuit’s denial of both due process claims aligns with the text of Illinois’ new student discipline law (commonly referred to as SB 100).

Ultimately, this case reflects the increasing trend of courts to recognize the right of school districts to discipline students for certain misconduct that occurs off-campus.

Please contact Vanessa Clohessy or Jennifer Mueller with student discipline questions.

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