Sixth-Grade Gym Class Basketball Game Causes Constitutional Battle in Federal Court Against Officials of Lakeview Public Schools and Jefferson Middle School
ANN ARBOR, MI — On Tuesday, June 6, 2023, the Thomas More Law Center (“TMLC”), a national nonprofit public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan against Lakeview Public Schools and its officials, as well as the Principal and Vice Principal of Jefferson Middle School (“JMS”) located in St. Clair Shores, Michigan.
The lawsuit, which claims willful and malicious disregard of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Michigan Constitution, the Michigan State School Code, and the School District’s own policy, was brought on behalf of Jonathon and Casandra Olbrys, and their minor son (referred herein by the pseudonym J.O.), a sixth-grade student at Jefferson Middle School. Their son is an exemplary student enrolled in accelerated academic courses and prior to the incident, which is the subject matter of the claim herein, was without any history of school disciplinary action.
Richard Thompson, TMLC’s President and Chief Counsel, representing the Plaintiffs commented, “The U.S. Supreme Court, concerned that state schools could become enclaves of totalitarianism, famously stated in the 1969 Tinker Case that children do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. The Court observed that the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in our American schools.”
Continued Thompson, “I am astonished at the duplicity and utter disdain these school officials had for the rights of these parents to see their son’s educational record, which they have a right to see under federal and state laws, and the School District’s own published rules.”
The constitutional battle involved in this case had inauspicious beginnings—a sixth-grade gym class basketball game and a videotape.
On the morning of January 18, 2023, the Jefferson Middle School sixth-grade gym class informally divided themselves into two groups, those who wanted to play a game of basketball and those who wanted to practice alone. The basketball game would more appropriately be characterized as “streetball” or a neighborhood “pick-up” game: no referee officiated, players called their own fouls, no rules were enforced, no score was kept, and no oversight was provided by the gym teacher or anyone else.
Players began blocking each other, bumping, boxing-out, and engaging in other forms of contact normal to basketball. The JMS Defendants contend that during the game one of the players was allegedly pushed and another allegedly punched several times. Three players, including J.O., were instructed to write statements about what happened. Apparently, all three were interviewed by the Vice Principal. And all three were suspended for varying lengths of time, with J.O. receiving the longest suspension of five days and prohibited from stepping foot on any school property or attending school events for ten days.
Violation of Due Process
J.O. was never informed of the provisions of the Student Code of Conduct that he was accused of violating. Nor was he given any explanation of the charges against him or a reasonable opportunity to respond to those charges, requirements of due process that the Supreme Court has imposed on public schools since the 1975 case of Goss v. Lopez:
“Due process requires, in connection with a suspension of 10 days or less, that the student be given oral or written notice of the charges against him, and if he denies them, an explanation of the evidence the authorities have and an opportunity to present his side of the story.”
In clear violation of his rights under the Due Process Clause, J.O. was never given the required notice of the charges against him. Instead, the Vice Principal took a few minutes to view a video which purportedly captured the incident and hurriedly rushed to the judgment that J.O. was the one who punched one player and pushed another player to the ground. J.O. was never allowed to see the video which was used to determine his guilt. Beginning with his written statement a few minutes after the incident, J.O. has steadfastly maintained that he did not punch or push anyone to the ground. Nor did the other two suspended players ever indicate in their written statements that he did. In fact, one of the players admitted that he was the one that was punching J.O. All the Defendants were made aware of that fact, to no avail.
Where Is the Video?
When Plaintiff Casandra Olbrys was informed of the video in a phone call with the Vice Principal at around 12:50 pm on the day of the incident, she immediately asked to see a copy. He refused. As the video was the main evidence against her son, she was attempting to ascertain exactly what transpired and the sequence of events leading up to the alleged incident. In her meeting with the Principal the next day, Mrs. Olbrys again requested to see the video. The Principal refused.
Since the incident of January 18, 2023, Plaintiffs have made at least a dozen requests, both orally and in writing, for the opportunity to view the video. Initially using the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) as a shield, the Defendants denied access to the footage outright because images of students not directly involved could possibly be revealed without their consent. But in a good-faith effort to protect the identity of any students not necessary to the investigation, Plaintiffs offered to pay any out-of-pocket cost associated with acquiring software that would blur out any peripheral students.
After several months of assuring Plaintiffs they would have an “edited” video copy of the incident, the Principal ultimately defaulted on her guarantee and has continued to unjustly block any access to the video.
The Defendants have also refused Plaintiffs’ several requests to review and make copies of their son’s entire educational record, which would include a copy of the purported video of the incident. Defendants’ refusal violates the School District’s own written policy which provides on page 31 of the School District Handbook that “Students and parents have a right to review and receive a copy of all educational records.”
The information contained in J.O.’s educational record is permanent. It is made available to any educational institution that asks for it, and any potential employers who ask for consent to view it.
This lawsuit is more than pointing out the wrongdoings of the Lakeview Public Schools’ administrators and JMS officials. According to the Defendants’ published policy (page 31 of the School District’s Handbook), parents have a right to amend their students’ record when they believe any information contained in it is inaccurate. To avail themselves of that right, however, the Plaintiffs must first know what is in J.O.’s record, and secondly must see the video which they believe will exonerate their son.
Contrary to Defendants’ repeated misrepresentations, the FERPA rules allow J.O. and his parents the right to review his entire educational record, even though it may contain confidential information about other students.
The unfortunate part of this story is that had the video Plaintiffs requested at least 12 different times showed their son repeatedly punching another player, they would have ceased their conflict with the Defendants.
But because the Defendants’ actions were intentionally deceptive and showed a complete and deliberate indifference to and conscious disregard for J.O.’s constitutional rights, Plaintiffs seek punitive damages in an amount a jury deems sufficient to punish and deter Defendants and other similar entities from like conduct in the future.
Lastly, in a May 24, 2023 email by Plaintiffs’ counsel to the Principal, she was asked to state whether she still had a viewable copy of the video—she refused to respond.
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