Did the teacher call the student a racist?

If you found that question provocative, I have bad news for you. We don’t know.  We will never know. The court tossed the case out before making any rulings on disputed facts.  But what happened in 4th Period English class in the Westside Community School District in Nebraska provides talking points and lessons for all. 

According to the facts alleged in the lawsuit the teacher showed a video to the class about athletes kneeling during the National Anthem. The teacher provided some context, referencing the Black Lives Matter movement and reports of how some white people had responded to it with threats of violence.   The teacher assigned students to watch the video and comment on their views.

A.C., soon to be known as “the plaintiff,” wanted no part of this. When called upon she declined to express her views until the teacher pressed her about it.  So A.C., a 13-year old, expressed herself. She thought the kneeling athletes were being disrespectful to law enforcement and the military.  She made note of music lyrics that encourage disrespect to the police. She recalled a conversation she overheard a year earlier in which students were wondering why it was OK for the black kids to use the N-word, when the white kids could not.

The suit claims that the teacher shut her down right about there.  But now, A.C. wanted to finish her thought, explaining that in her view, nobody should be using the N-word. She was not given the opportunity to say that.

That might have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. A.C. woke up feeling ill the next morning and did not come to school. Her parents called the school to report this. 

The teacher sent an email to the parents that morning informing them of the previous day’s incident. According to the teacher, A.C. had to be “cut off” because the information she was sharing “took a dicey turn” when A.C. began “generalizing blacks.”  The teacher invited a conference with the parents.

Then the texts from the other students started rolling in, reporting that the teacher was slamming the girl in all of her classes. The suit put it like this:

“[The teacher] took that opportunity to smear and slander A.C.’s excellent reputation and character to the students in every class period,” as she “lied to intentionally defame and label A.C. as a ‘racist who says the N-word’ thus inflicting emotional and physical distress, decimating A.C.’s reputation and placing A.C. in direct harm and danger at school….”

That got A.C. out of her sick bed and into the parent-teacher conference later that day.  The parents alleged that they confronted the teacher, saying “It is entirely unfair that you label A.C. a racist!” They further allege that the teacher “rolled her eyes and smugly answered, “I do not believe it to be unfair….”

The parents encountered some procedural obstacles to filing suit.  First, parents do not have the legal standing to file suit solely on behalf of their children, and cannot proceed to do so acting as their own attorneys. So the court initially dismissed the suit, and instructed the parents to find a lawyer who could represent them. Then they could start over. 

They tried to find a lawyer. They tried hard.  The parents alleged that they contacted 35 lawyers in private practice, none of whom would take the case on a contingent fee basis.  They also got turned down by Nebraska Legal Aid and the Creighton University legal clinic.  They did not have the means to pay for a lawyer, so they asked the court to appoint a lawyer to help them. 

The court refused to do so. The court noted that the parents would be entitled to an appointed lawyer only if their constitutional claims were “sufficiently meritorious to warrant the appointment of counsel.” The court held that they were not.  So the court shut the case down without ever diving into the messy “she said/she said” about what happened in that classroom. 

The court cited numerous cases from SCOTUS and other high ranking courts that establish that student expression in the classroom is far from free.  Judges don’t want to exercise supervision over the daily interaction between teachers and students.  The court cited some earlier cases along these lines:

So long as the teacher limits speech or grades speech in the classroom in the name of learning and not as a pretext for punishing the student for her race, gender, economic class, religion or political persuasion, the federal courts should not interfere.

So the litigation is over, but let’s think about the impact of a story like this on the school campus.  Judges can dismiss cases like this, but principals cannot. Notice that the parents in this case allege two acts of wrongdoing by the teacher, one of them far more serious than the other. They allege that the teacher cut the student off before she could finish her thought.  Well….who wants to volunteer to second guess that kind of decision?  The teacher has to maintain control of the classroom discussion and must have a good deal of leeway in how to do that.

But the parents also allege that the teacher “smeared and slandered” a student in front of a room full of kids.  Apply the “if true, how serious is it” test to that.  I’d say: very serious.  The principal would have to dive into the weeds in an effort to establish exactly what happened in the classroom.   If it’s true, the principal needs to take some strong corrective action.

But we don’t know.  We never will. That’s the case of Crozier v. Westside Community School District, decided by the federal court for Nebraska on January 17, 2019. We found it at 2019 WL 249399. 


See you next week, Loyal Readers!