Parents Challenge Children’s Dismissal from Church-Run School

Can a church-operated school be sued for dismissing a student?

Church Law and Tax 1994-07-01 Recent Developments


Key point: A church-operated school generally cannot be sued for dismissing a student unless the dismissal violates a contractual right or the school clearly abused its discretion in enforcing its policies and regulations.

An Ohio appeals court dismissed a lawsuit brought by the parents of two children challenging the legality of their children’s dismissal by a church-operated school. A couple enrolled their two children, ages 8 and 10, in a church-operated private school. The couple signed an application for enrollment specifying that they would “uphold the student handbook.” The school handbook contained a provision stating that “[i]f a parent has a question or concern related to a classroom situation, he should first meet with the particular classroom teacher. If the matter is not resolved, the administrator is the proper person to contact …. If a parent feels that he cannot accept the decision or explanation given by the administrator, his final recourse is to take the matter before the school board, with the administrator and teacher present, by submitting a written request for such a meeting to the administrator.” Soon after the two children were involved in the school, the 8-year-old (a girl) was sexually touched by two male students. The male students were warned to refrain from such conduct in the future. A few weeks later, one of these same boys had sexual contact with the girl again. Shortly after this incident, another boy spit on the girl. The girl’s mother was enraged by these incidents and confronted the school administrator. The mother called the administrator “unchristian” and accused him of “working with the devil.” When all efforts to resolve the tension failed, the administrator asked the parents to withdraw their children from the school. The parents later sued the school and its administrator for wrongfully dismissing their children. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the parents appealed. In upholding the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit, the appeals court observed:

There is no question that the relationship between the parties here is a contractual one, that the terms of that relationship may be expressed in school policies and handbooks, and that those expressed terms may govern the circumstances under which a student may be expelled. Because contracts for private education have unique qualities, they are to be construed in a manner which leaves the school board broad discretion to meet its educational and doctrinal responsibilities. Absent a clear abuse of discretion by the school in the enforcement of its policies and regulations, courts will not interfere in these matters. Thus, in order to state a … claim in these circumstances, the plaintiff must adduce evidence of a violated contractual right or evidence that the school clearly abused its discretion in enforcing its policies and regulations. In the present case [the parents] have failed to adduce any evidence of a failed contractual right. They have also failed to present any facts to show a clear abuse of discretion on the part of [the school or its administrator]. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that [the school and administrator] acted within their proper discretion in removing the … children. The record demonstrates that [the administrator] … responded promptly to the complaints by [the mother] in a manner that he believed would yield fairness to all parties involved. The [parents] refused to agree to his disposition of the matters, bypassed the grievance procedures, engaged in confrontational tactics and failed to abide by the school handbook. After [the mother] called [the administrator] unchristian and accused him of working with the devil, [he] felt that he could not work together with [the family] and that the best interest of all parties would be served by the removal of the children from the school.

This case illustrates the importance of having clearly stated grievance policies in school handbooks, and of following those policies. Allen v. Casper, 622 N.E.2d 367 (Ohio App. 8 Dist. 1993).

See Also: Discharge and Discipline of Students

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