• Key point. Church-operated schools are given considerable freedom in the discipline of students.
An Ohio court ruled that a church-operated private school did not violate the legal rights of an 8th-grade student who was suspended temporarily for violating the school's sexual harassment and sexual violence policies. An adolescent male ("Ted") was a student at a church-operated private school for three years. School officials received several reports that Ted was pushing and shoving other students, many of whom were females. Because of these complaints, a school official suggested to Ted's parents that he receive counseling. The culmination of these complaints occurred when three girls came to a school official's office to complain about Ted's treatment of them as well as other students. The school official called in the other students and asked them to write down their observations concerning Ted's behavior. These written statements describe various instances in which Ted squeezed girls' breasts or buttocks or made sexual comments or jokes. After she received these statements, the school official suspended Ted. During this suspension, additional statements were received from other students concerning Ted's behavior. Boys, for example, indicated that Ted grabbed their genital area. Ted admitted to these actions. Specifically, he admitted that he had touched the breasts or buttocks of four girls. He explained that he engaged in this behavior to be funny and make friends.
School officials suspended Ted for three days as a result of these allegations and informed Ted's parents that he could return to school only if he received counseling. The parents declined this option and removed their son from the school. They later sued the school, claiming that it unfairly punished their son for his "pubescent indiscretions." In particular, the parents argued that (1) the school breached its contract with them because it did not follow its handbook in handling this matter, and (2) the school committed defamation and invasion of privacy.
Ted's parents painted a much different picture of the events. They described a school where the students "were like most other pubescent youth and actively engaged in sexual and non-sexual wordplay, horseplay, teasing and pranking." Furthermore, they cited various occasions when students taunted and teased Ted. Specifically, Ted stated that on one occasion, he was kicked and tied up on the playground, and when he complained of this treatment, little or no action was taken by the school.
A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the parents appealed.
Breach of School Handbook
The parents claimed that the school violated its handbook in disciplining their son. The school handbook contains a "Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence Policy" that defined sexual harassment and sexual violence, and listed several disciplinary options available to the school, including suspension and expulsion. The court noted that Ted's behavior met the policy's definition of both sexual harassment and sexual violence. Further, "the actions taken by the school-conferences with parents, repeatedly advising that he receive counseling, suspending him, and finally requiring counseling-were all consistent with the disciplinary options available to the school" under the policy.
The court stated that "under Ohio law, a private school … is vested with broad discretion in the manner in which it disciplines its students …. [The school's] actions of investigating the serious allegations and incrementally addressing the issue (first by conferring with the parents and repeatedly suggesting counseling, next by suspending him, and finally by requiring counseling) were all within the broad discretion afforded to [the school]."
Did a school official defame Ted when she explained to his class why he no longer was enrolled in the school? No, concluded the court: "The first requirement for establishing a claim of defamation is a false statement. [The parents] have failed to present any evidence of a false statement [the school] made about Ted. Ted himself admitted that he touched the female students in the manner the school described in its statements to the class and to the authorities. Accordingly, because [the parents] have failed to point to any false statement [the school] made, [their] claim of defamation must fail."
Invasion of Privacy
The parents claimed that school officials invaded Ted's privacy by failing to conduct their investigation in a confidential manner. The court defined invasion of privacy as "the publicizing of one's private affairs with which the public has no legitimate concern, or the wrongful intrusion into one's private activities in such a manner as to outrage or cause mental suffering, shame or humiliation to a person of ordinary sensibilities." The court concluded that the parents had failed to prove invasion of privacy:
[The parents] cannot establish an actionable invasion-of-privacy claim, because this information was a matter of concern to the school and already known to numerous students. There is no liability when the defendant merely gives further publicity to information about the plaintiff that is already public. Moreover, [the school official] went to the students merely to ask them about Ted's behavior. This investigation was appropriate, indeed necessary, because three students themselves had initiated the complaints and numerous others were either alleged victims or witnesses or both. Indeed it is incongruous for Ted, who admitted to touching the girls in front of the other students, to complain about the investigation extending to these same students. Moreover, once the principal was put on notice that Ted's actions were not limited to merely one or two persons, it was her duty to determine the extent of that activity. Finally, [the parents] fail to explain how [Ted's] privacy would be protected if [the school official] had investigated the matter by calling each student to her office separately. To adequately investigate the matter, she still had to speak to each student.
Application. This case illustrates the importance of church-operated schools having policies addressing sexual harassment and sexual violence. In this case, the school's policy clearly defined both terms, and then gave several examples of each type of behavior. The policy stressed that this list of examples was "not meant to be all-inclusive, but is intended to provide guidance as to what may constitute" sexual harassment or sexual violence. This is an important clarification, since it means that these definitions were not limited to the behaviors described in the examples. Further, the policy listed several forms of discipline that were available for a violation of its sexual harassment and sexual violence policy. This list was preceded by the following statement: "Possible disciplinary actions may include but are not limited to any or all of the following." Again, this language gave the school flexibility in crafting its disciplinary responses. Iwenofu v. St. Luke School, 1999 WL 61007 (Ohio App. 1999).
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