The boy who created a “bracket” to rank the girls….

Today’s Daily Dawg case reminds me to remind you that Restorative Discipline has a place in the public school system.  Learning how to navigate relationships is at least as important as anything else we can teach. Let me tell you a story based on a long, complicated judicial opinion from a case in New York. 

When he was a sophomore, Juneau Wang created a computer-generated tournament-style bracket that included 64 girls in the high school in Bethlehem Central School District in New York.  When I read that description of the facts in the court’s opinion I jumped to the conclusion that the boys were ranking the girls on looks.  Wrong.  There were no pictures and the boys were only asked who were the most admired or liked girls.  All of this was done privately, among the boys that Mr.Wang invited to participate in the bracket ranking. 

Of course nothing like this stays private for long. The girls found out.  The principal found out.  After investigating, he concluded that the “bracket” was not intended to harm, harass, or objectify students. However, the principal issued “remedial directives” to the student, which included him making a written apology.  Apparently there was no other disciplinary action taken.  I’m sure the “remedial measures” were intended to heal the wounds.  In the later lawsuit Juneau claimed that he did apologize, but it’s pretty clear that not everybody got the word about that.

As a junior Juneau published a book, which is unusual for a high school student. The book told the story of the bracket and the backlash it created.  One of his observations was that “if girls made a bracket of guys, guys would laugh it off.”  Later the superintendent acknowledged that this statement “rubbed her the wrong way.”  It rubs me as ignorant and wildly inaccurate.

As a senior, young Mr. Wang submitted a speech to the Speech Committee which would be selecting a speaker for the high school graduation.  The Committee chose Juneau’s speech unanimously.  But he never gave that speech and that’s how he became “the Plaintiff.”

After the identity of the graduation speaker was announced, the superintendent got some complaints.  The court said that she relied on four complaints from female students and their parents. The suit alleges that these complaints inaccurately stated that the girls were ranked based on their photographs, and that Juneau never apologized.  The suit also alleges that the superintendent also held the mistaken belief that the girls were being ranked based on appearance.  Long story short: the superintendent overruled the Speech Committee and assigned a female student to give the speech at the graduation.  The board affirmed the decision, as did the state Commissioner of Education. Then Mr. Wang became “the Plaintiff.”

The court’s opinion is long, complicated, and only based on the Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss. At that stage of the proceedings the court is required to accept the Plaintiff’s version of the facts as true.  The court dismissed the complaints about due process, both substantive and procedural.  However, the court found the allegations about retaliation for the exercise of free speech to be plausible.

So the lawsuit continues. The Plaintiff will have his day in court where he can try to prove that he suffered retaliation as well as sex discrimination in violation of Title IX.  Sigh.

What an opportunity this fact situation creates for a Restorative approach to student discipline.  In Restorative Discipline we don’t ask “who did it, what rule did they break, and what is the punishment?”  Instead we ask: what harm was done? What is needed to repair the harm?  Who is responsible for the repair?  Perhaps that’s what the “remedial measures” the principal ordered were designed to do, but it’s clear that the harm was not entirely healed.  The principal concluded that Juneau Wang and his buddies did not intend to cause harm. But they did, and it lingered two years later. 

Sorting all this out in the legal system does nothing to repair the damage to relationships.  As I read this court decision I came to believe that Mr. Wang has a lot to learn.  I’m not sure he’s going to get the right lesson from this litigation.

It’s Wang v. Bethlehem Central School District decided by the federal district court for the Northern District of New York on August 8, 2022.  It’s located at 2022 WL 3154142.


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Tomorrow: 5th Circuit on employment law…