By Dan Strong and Becky Thornton, Teague Campbell Dennis & Gorham, LLP
Article I, Section 15 of the North Carolina Constitution provides that “[t]he people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right.” N.C. Const. art. I, § 15. The North Carolina Constitution implements this provision in Article IX, Section 2 by commanding the General Assembly to “provide by taxation and otherwise for a general and uniform system of free public schools ... wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.” N.C. Const. art. IX, § 2. On June 11, 2021, the North Carolina Supreme Court determined that this constitutional protection extends to instances of extreme bullying in public schools, thereby permitting claimants to bring a tort action against a school system based on allegations that it failed to act.
In Deminski v. State Board of Education, the North Carolina Supreme Court considered whether a tort action for violation of these two constitutional provisions could be filed against the State Board of Education. Ashley Deminski, guardian ad litem of her three elementary school aged children in Pitt County, North Carolina, filed suit against the State Board of Education and Pitt County Board of Education alleging the three students had been bullied and sexually harassed by other students. The minor plaintiffs and Deminski repeatedly informed teachers and school administrators about the bullying. The County Board of Education is alleged to have been made aware of the incidents. School personnel reportedly informed Deminski that there was a “process” that would “take time.” However, as time progressed, plaintiff alleges the bullying and harassment continued with no real change. When the school did take action to resolve bullying against one of the three students by modifying one bully’s schedule, it resulted in that bully having more time in the other two bullied students’ classes. The three students eventually transferred to a new school effective only for the 2016-2017 school year. The transfer was later modified to be effective for as long as Deminski and the minor plaintiffs resided at their then-current address.
The Deminski suit included claims for violations of Article I, Section 15 and Article IX, Section 2, alleging that the minor plaintiffs were denied their right to a sound basic education as a result of being in a hostile academic environment where the School Board entities: “had substantial control over the harassing conduct;” “had actual knowledge of the harassing conduct;” and “exhibited deliberate indifference to the harassing conduct.” Both the State Board of Education and Pitt County Board of Education moved to dismiss the Complaint. The State’s motion was granted in full. Pitt County’s motion was denied, in part, allowing the Constitutional claims to proceed. Pitt County appealed.
The Court of Appeals Reverses
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order denying the motion to dismiss, holding that the constitutional guarantee to a sound basic education extended no further than an entity making educational opportunities available. A dissenting opinion, however, concluded that the minor plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged that Pitt County failed to provide them with an opportunity to receive a sound basic education based on the school’s deliberate indifference to a hostile classroom environment. Deminski appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court based on the reasoning outlined in the dissenting opinion.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
The Supreme Court, quoting Leandro v. State, 346 N.C. 336, 345, 488 S.E.2d 249, 254 (1997), stated that “[a]n education that does not serve the purpose of preparing students to participate and compete in the society in which they live and work is devoid of substance and is constitutionally inadequate.” An affirmative duty is placed upon the government “to guard and maintain” a student’s right to a sound basic education. The Supreme Court found that Deminski had sufficiently pleaded the elements required to assert a Constitutional claim against Pitt County, including the first and third elements that the violation was undertaken by a state actor and that there was no “adequate state remedy” for the alleged injury. Interestingly, when analyzing whether Deminski had alleged a “colorable constitutional claim,” the Court adopted the rationale of the dissent issued in the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court found that the school’s “deliberate indifference to ongoing student harassment created an environment in which plaintiff-students could not learn.” The Court noted that “the right to a sound basic education rings hollow if the structural right exists but in a setting that is so intimidating and threatening to students that they lack a meaningful opportunity to learn.”
A claim for deliberate indifference, which requires a showing that the defendants actually knew of and disregarded the alleged activity, arises in several types of actions. In § 1983 claims alleging violation of the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment, allegations of deliberate indifference require a showing that the actor actually knew of and ignored a detainee’s serious need for medical care.Young v. City of Mount Ranier, 238 F.3d 567, 575-76 (4th Cir. 1999). Mere negligence or, from a medical provider’s perspective, medical malpractice, is insufficient to establish a violation of the Eight Amendment rights of an inmate. Grayson v. Peed, 195 F.3d 692, 695 (4th Cir. 1999). These deliberate indifference claims involve both an objective and subjective component. As to the objective component, a plaintiff must first show that the alleged deprivation is sufficiently serious, and as to the subjective component, a plaintiff must show that the defendants acted with deliberate indifference to the inmate’s safety. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994).
Monell claims, which refer to the 1978 United States Supreme Court case Monell v. Department of Social Services, are specific to § 1983 claims against a local government entity as an employer, supervisor, and policymaker. 436 U.S. 658 (1978). For a Monell claim to survive, the plaintiff must establish that a public entity had an unconstitutional policy either by an actual written policy or an unofficial custom or practice exercised repeatedly. Monell claims can include allegations that the municipality was deliberately indifferent in a failure to train or supervise the government employee. While most frequently applied in policing or jail operations, Monell claims can also be asserted in employment-related discrimination claims.
Deliberate indifference claims have been applied in student-on-student harassment in other contexts and jurisdictions. In 1999, the United States Supreme Court held that a student can maintain a private cause of action against a school board under Title IX in cases of student-on-student sexual harassment, “but only where the funding recipient acts with deliberate indifference to known acts of harassment in its programs or activities.” Davis Next Friend LaShonda D. v. Monroe Cty. Bd. of Educ., 526 U.S. 629, 633 (1999). Under the Court’s holding in Davis, a plaintiff must allege that the deliberate indifference, at a minimum, caused the plaintiff to undergo harassment or make them vulnerable to it. Importantly, the Court found that a Title IX fund recipient would only be deemed “deliberately indifferent” to acts of student-on-student harassment where the “recipient's response to the harassment or lack thereof is clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.” Notably, the Court found that a mere decline in grades is not enough to survive a motion to dismiss but that the drop-off in grades could provide necessary evidence of a potential link between the harassed student's education and the harasser's misconduct. The harassed student's ability to state a cognizable claim depends equally on the alleged persistence and severity of the harasser's actions and the board's alleged knowledge and deliberate indifference. In a recent case applying Davis, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina found that, to be actionable, the “student-on-student harassment must effectively deny the victim access to the school's educational resources and benefits.” Jane Doe, by her next friend, Tonisha Pullen-Smith, Plaintiff, v. Cumberland County Board Of Education, et al., No. 5:20-CV-523-FL, 2021 WL 2546456, at *5 (E.D.N.C. June 21, 2021). The Court stated that “[w]hile deliberate indifference is a high standard that requires more than a showing of mere negligence, a half-hearted investigation or remedial action will [not] suffice to shield a school from liability.” Id.
Prior to the ruling in Deminski, North Carolina Courts had never “recognized abuse, even repeated abuse, or an abusive classroom environment as a violation of the constitutional right to education.” Deminski v. State Bd. of Educ., 269 N.C. App. 165, 174, 837 S.E.2d 611, 617 (2020); see also Doe v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Educ., 222 N.C. App. 359, 731 S.E.2d 245 (2012) (holding that the education rights recognized by the state constitution related to the nature, extent, and quality of the educational opportunities made available to students in the public school system). In Doe, The Court previously recognized that a student was entitled to receive “a sound basic education” in public school which included, among other things, the ability to read and write; fundamental knowledge of geography, history and basic economic and political systems; as well as sufficient academic and vocational skills to enable the student to be successful in post-secondary education, vocational training or employment pursuits. Because “all sound basic education” claims prior to Deminski focused solely on educational opportunities made available to students, deliberate indifference claims were not recognized as “colorable constitutional claims” and would therefore be subject to dismissal.
Under Deminski, however, the Court has expanded the definition of colorable constitutional claims to include situations where a student is not provided with a meaningful opportunity to learn due to the deliberate indifference of a state actor. The expansion of the concept of deliberate indifference to claims for violation of Article I, Section 15 and Article IX, Section 2 creates several areas of uncertainty. One notable question left unanswered in the Deminski opinion, which analyzed a claim of deliberate indifference only against a county school board, is how to apply such claims against individual educators or school administrators. In fact, it now appears likely that individuals acting in their official capacity could be subject to § 1983 claims based upon a theory of deliberate indifference. Other questions that the Court did not address are the objective and/or subjective elements of a deliberate indifference claim under these circumstances, nor did it address whether the claims would be treated similarly to those asserted under Title IX. An additional consideration is that it now appears likely that the State Board of Education could be subject to deliberate indifference claims as well, since the Supreme Court in Leandro held that the State has the ultimate responsibility to provide students with access to a sound basic education. This specific issue was not addressed in Deminski because the trial court’s complete grant of the State Board of Education’s motion to dismiss meant the issue was not considered on appeal. Ultimately, the Deminski opinion presents issues of first impression that will likely result in additional appeals throughout the course of the litigation.