Parents can pursue claim that school overreacted to alleged threat

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A lower federal court jumped the gun in dismissing a lawsuit filed by the parents of an elementary school student suspended for allegedly scribbling a threat in crayon for a class assignment, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled recently in Cuff v. Valley Central School District.

In September 2007, students at Berea Elementary School in Montgomery, N.Y., were asked to fill in a picture of an astronaut. The then-10-year-old student — known in court papers as “B.C.” — listed his birthday, teacher’s name, his favorite sports and the phrase “blow up the school with all the teachers in it.” School officials labeled it a “violent student threat” and handed down a five-day suspension.

The boy’s parents, William and Margaret Cuff, sued, claiming a violation of their son’s free-speech rights. In May 2008, a federal district court granted the school officials’ motion to dismiss, finding that they “could reasonably have viewed B.C.’s writings as a general indication of violent intention … notwithstanding the fact he might have been unable to perform the specific violent act he threatened.”

The district court emphasized that school officials unfortunately have to act in a time when fatal school shootings take place: “The threat of serious school violence — including mass shootings perpetrated by students — is an unfortunate fact of life in twenty-first-century America.”

On appeal, the 2nd Circuit said that the lower court had dismissed the suit too early. The appeals court focused on several factors: the student’s age, the fact that the “threat” was “made in crayon in direct response to a school assignment,” that the student did not show it to other students and he had no prior disciplinary history.

The 2nd Circuit sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings. The appeals court did not say that the parents ultimately would prevail over the school district, just that the lower court acted too quickly. “We cannot say, based on these facts, that it was reasonable as a matter of law to foresee a material and substantial disruption to the school environment, just as we cannot say that foreseeing such a risk was, as a matter of law, unreasonable.”

It appears that the lower court will have to consider such relevant factors such as the student’s lack of disciplinary problems and whether the crayon message really was a threat or whether the school overreacted.