Judge OKs continuation of discrimination lawsuit against GCPS

·4 min read

Sep. 24—OXFORD — A federal judge has allowed two Granville Central High School students to continue a lawsuit against the county school system, but narrowed it to a claim alleging that officials discriminated against them on account of race.

U.S. District Court Judge Louise Flanagan's August ruling tossed claims alleging gender discrimination, due-process violations and negligence, and also rejected the students' request for an injunction.

Identified in court papers only by the initials I.M. and T.R., the students claim they were being bullied at the school but wound up bearing the brunt of disciplinary action after fighting one of their tormentors. They got suspensions and transfers to the district's Phoenix academy.

Flanagan weighed in at an early stage of the case that asked her to assume everything the students say happened actually did, and decide whether their claims could amount to a violation of the law.

Because of her ruling on the students' race-discrimination claim, the two sides now enter the "discovery" phase of the proceedings where they marshal witnesses, documents and other potential evidence.

Once they're done — months from now — the judge gets to weigh in again on whether the facts are disputed to the point a jury has to sift through them, and whether there is indeed enough evidence of a potential violation of the law to justify going ahead with a trial.

Granville schools officials had hoped Flanagan would dismiss the case in its entirety, but are counting the subtraction of most of the students' claims as a victory.

"The school system is pleased that the judge dismissed all claims against the superintendent and board chair and all but one claim against the [school] board at this early stage," district spokesman and Associate Superintendent Stan Winborne said. "In the next phase of litigation the board will have the opportunity to present evidence as to why the single remaining claim should also be dismissed."

The students contend they were being tormented by a group of students that was using racial and anti-gay epithets to goad them into a fight they could record on video and post to social-media platforms like Snapchat.

They allege that in late September of 2021, they were attacked in a math class, and then later one of them was attacked in a P.E. class by one of the tormentors who first called I.M. "derogatory names" and then pushed him in the back as he was trying to walk away.

Both students then "began to defend themselves while yelling and screaming at the white male assailant," as his fellow harassers began to film, Flanagan said, quoting the lawsuit.

Flanagan found that the district is open to a race-discrimination claim because of the alleged student-on-student harassment, and because of its handling of the disciplinary process.

While courts have found that in general, "simple acts of teasing and name-calling among children" don't rise to the level of a civil-rights violation, the repeated use of the N word can, she said, noting that it's alleged to have happened in the Granville Central incident.

The lawsuit also includes necessary allegations that school officials knew about the alleged harassment, and that they acted with "deliberate indifference" by doing nothing about it, the judge said.

As for the district's handling of the disciplinary process, the lawsuit ticked the necessary boxes and in particular alleged that "the white male student engaged in comparable or worse conduct, but was disciplined less than [I.M. and T.R.] because of his race," Flanagan said.

The judge by contrast said a gender-discrimination claim can't go forward because the epithets in question there — "gay," "ugly" and "lover of gays" — "fall under the category of 'offensive names' that without more" courts haven't regarded as proving sexual harassment in cases involving an exchange between students.

She added that the lawsuit's allegations of racial harassment are a "close case," one that requires her to leave " for a later juncture [a] more comprehensive determination of this issue" once more of the evidence is in.

The school system, meanwhile, filed an answer to the lawsuit that denied the allegations of bullying, and said I.M. and T.R. "attacked a student, multiple adults intervened," and that they were sent home.

Flanagan in her ruling also noted that the school district has claimed the disciplinary process was fair because there was "no allegation" that the white male student "participated in a two-on-one assault, the misconduct for which [I.M. and T.R.] were suspended."

Contact Ray Gronberg at rgronberg@hendersondispatch.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.

Contact Ray Gronberg at rgronberg@hendersondispatch.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.