Additional Evidence Did Not Change Court’s Ruling To Uphold Student Expulsion

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: May 25, 2023

A.R. was dismissed from the Hopkins School in October 2020 following a disciplinary hearing regarding his use of the N-word. Hopkins is a private school that requires all students to abide by its handbook as a condition of enrollment. The handbook explicitly prohibits offensive language and provides that verbal conduct by a student that results in an intimidating, hostile, or offensive school environment is prohibited. This includes the use of pejorative epithets and ethnic slurs.

Under the terms of the handbook, “very serious misconduct includes offensive language and/or behavior that is harassing, discriminatory, threatening, or directed at another individual based on any other protected class (e.g., race, religion, sex, etc.)” The N-word clearly falls within this category. Under the terms of the handbook, investigations, and the disciplinary process are triggered when a report is made. The Discipline Committee proceedings take the form of a conversation and do not imitate legal proceedings.

In October 2020, the Dean of Students received a report from a student regarding concerns about A.R.’s use of the N-word. Subsequently, several other students came to the Dean of Students with similar reports.  The School undertook an investigation, which included interviewing students about their reports. A.R.’s parents expressed concerns that the first student who reported the concerns coerced other students into falsely accusing A.R.  Due to these concerns, each student was asked whether they were bullied or pressured into reporting A.R.  All students denied this suggestion.

The matter was referred to the Discipline Committee and a hearing was held. A.R. admitted to openly using the N-word in the school cafeteria on one occasion, but denied using the N-word after that specific incident, and claimed the students who said otherwise were lying.  The Discipline Committee did not find A.R.’s denials to be credible and determined the repeated, blanket denials of all reports and concerns precluded more serious reflection and profoundly affected the Committee’s determination that he should be dismissed. A.R. was given the opportunity to withdraw in lieu of expulsion. A.R. withdrew on October 26, 2020.

J.R. brought an action on behalf of his son A.R. against Hopkins alleging, among other claims, breach of contract. On July 1, 2022, the trial court granted the School’s motion for summary judgment.  Now, J.R. moves for reconsideration of the trial court’s decision, arguing J.R. lodged certain exhibits with the court, the exhibits should have been fully considered by the court, and consideration of these exhibits would have resulted in a different outcome. The School argued that J.R. failed to demonstrate that the court overlooked or misapprehended any facts.

Among the exhibits that J.R. raised were:

  • A timeline was created by the first reporting student, which contained bullying and harassment conduct that A.R. reported about this student. The Court concluded that J.R. failed to provide evidence contradicting the facts that the School investigated A.R.’s claims of harassment and bullying.
  • An affidavit from a black student, who reported A.R. for asking this student to participate in a rap song and say the N-word on it. This student states that she was not pressured or bullied to report A.R. and that she was not harmed or insulted by the conduct. J.R. argued this document raises questions regarding whether the School fully investigated the reports made against A.R. The Court concluded that one student’s subjective opinion or experience does not change the language in the School’s handbook.
  • Three TikTok videos were made by a student, where each video contains a song in which the N-word is used. These videos were presented by J.R. to show that the School did not apply the procedures in its handbook fairly and to all students. The Court stated that these videos were unreported student conduct and addressed in the original summary judgment decision. There was no evidence these videos were brought to the School’s attention prior to the litigation, and since a report was never made, the School was not obligated to investigate these claims.
  • Affidavits and depositions of other students stating that other Hopkins students used the N-word and were not disciplined. The Court concluded again that unreported student conduct had no bearing on A.R.’s discipline.
  • R.’s disability accommodation letter, in which J.R. argued that the School failed to provide requisite accommodations during the disciplinary hearing, including pushing A.R. beyond his endurance when his medications had worn off and not giving him any breaks. The Court concluded that A.R.’s official accommodation plan did not require breaks or mention medication management at all, so this exhibit did not contradict the Court’s findings.

The Court concluded that consideration of the exhibits at issue would not have made a difference in the Court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the School, and therefore the Court upheld the motion for summary judgment.

Ranciato v. Hopkins School (Conn. Super. Ct., Apr. 3, 2023) 2023 WL 2888541.

Note: LCW previously reported on an earlier decision in this case in the August 2022 Private Education Matters. The court, in this case, commended the school for following its handbook closely, and thoroughly investigating and taking appropriate action for each report of misconduct.  The case is a reminder that private K-12 schools, colleges, and universities should closely follow their written policies and procedures in response to reports of student misconduct.

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