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Court Dismisses Parent’s Lawsuit Against School For Dismissing Son For Repeated Use Of Racial Slurs
The Hopkins School (Hopkins) is an independent day school in New Haven, Connecticut. Alex Ranciato enrolled in Hopkins in Fall 2019. Alex’s parents signed an enrollment contract agreeing, on Alex’s behalf, that he would abide by the School’s Handbook. The Handbook prohibits “offensive language and/or behavior that is harassing, discriminatory, threatening, or directed at another individual based on any other protected class.”
In October 2020, Lily Panagos, a student at Hopkins, reported to Lars Jorgensen, the Dean of Students and the Head Advisor for the class of 2023, that Alex used the N-word multiples times on FaceTime and at social gatherings in the spring and summer of 2020. Panagos said she and her classmates were fed up with Alex’s continued use of the N-word, despite their requests that he stop using the racial slur. Jorgensen told Panagos that if other students shared her concerns, they should come forward and make their own reports.
After Panagos’ report Jorgensen learned that sometime in Fall 2019, Alex used the N-word in the Hopkins’ lunchroom. This incident was not reported to the administration and was not immediately investigated.
In accordance with the school’s Handbook, Jorgensen relayed Panagos’ report to John Roberts, the Assistant Head of School. Several more students came forward with their own reports of Alex’s use of the N-word, and Jorgensen and Roberts undertook an investigation into the allegations. As part of the investigation, Jorgensen and Roberts met with Alex and his parents to inform them of the reports of Alex’s use of the N-word. In response, Alex and his parents insisted that Panagos coerced other students into falsely accusing Alex of using the N-word because Alex rejected Panagos romantically and Panagos disagreed with Alex’s political beliefs and support for President Donald Trump.
The students told Jorgensen and Roberts that they waited to report Alex because they did not want Alex to get into trouble, but they had grown increasingly uncomfortable and concerned with Alex’s continued use of the racial slur. The students also denied being bullied into reporting Alex.
On October 22, 2020, a Discipline Committee convened for Alex’s hearing. The Committee was comprised of Jorgensen, a drama teacher, the Director of Community Engagement, four students from the Hopkins senior class, and Roberts who served as the chair of the Discipline Committee. Alex, his parents, and his advisor were present at the hearing. During the hearing, Alex admitted to using the N-word in the lunchroom in 2019 but denied using the word since that incident. Both Alex and his parents expressed their concern that Panagos was targeting Alex for rejecting her romantically and because of his political beliefs.
The Committee did not find Alex’s denials credible and found the five students who reported Alex were credible. The Committee found that it was likely Alex continued use of the N-word after the lunchroom incident. The Committee concluded that Alex’s misconduct warranted expulsion and forwarded this recommendation to Dr. Kai Bynum, Head of School.
On October 24, 2020, Roberts called Alex’s parents to inform them of the recommendation for expulsion. The next day, Roberts emailed Alex’s parents that Dr. Bynum decided to allow Alex to withdraw from Hopkins instead of being expelled. Alex’s parents responded to this email and withdrew Alex from Hopkins. On November 20, 2020, Roberts sent a written confirmation of the Discipline Committee’s decision that Alex no longer remains a student at Hopkins.
On December 29, 2020, Alex’s parents filed a lawsuit against Hopkins, alleging various causes of action, including negligence and breach of contract. Specifically, Alex’s parents alleged that Hopkins failed to provide Alex with a fair disciplinary process and failed to abide by express promises not to discriminate against Alex; failed to protect Alex from discrimination on the basis of his sex and disability; failed to protect Alex from sexual harassment, bullying, and racial harassment by Panagos; expelled Alex for serious misconduct despite Hopkins’ failure to produce evidence that using the N-word constituted serious misconduct; punished Alex on the basis of his race because as a white, conservative student, he was retroactively forbidden from using the N-word; and failed to issue a timely written decision as promised in the Handbook in cases of expulsion.
Hopkins filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that all of its decisions were entitled to deference because it is an educational decision or in the alternative, there was no dispute of fact supporting the parents’ claims.
The trial court ruled in favor of Hopkins. The court found that Hopkins undeniably demonstrated its compliance with its rules and procedures. The court rejected Alex’s argument that he was expelled for misconduct not prohibited by the Handbook. The Handbook specifically defines offensive language or behavior that is discriminatory as “very serious misconduct” and prohibits “communications or behavior that is disrespectful, offensive, profane, threatening, harassing or disruptive” to Hopkins. The Handbook also expressly states that students may be dismissed for “very serious misconduct.” The court held that Alex’s use of the N-word is “undeniably offensive, discriminatory, disrespectful, and profane” and thus is in violation of the Handbook.
The court also rejected the parents’ argument that Hopkins breached its contract by expelling Alex despite the lack of evidence of Alex using the N-word. The court found this argument unsupported by the evidence, which included five students who came forward to report Alex for using the N-word over FaceTime and at social gatherings. The court noted that the Discipline Committee found the students’ allegations credible, and Alex’s parents did not present any evidence to contradict the evidence that was before the Discipline Committee.
The court rejected the parents’ argument that Hopkins failed to investigate the allegations against Alex in violation of the Handbook. The court found there was evidence that Jorgensen and Roberts followed up on the reports against Alex by meeting with multiple students. Hopkins’ administrators asked students who accused Alex whether they were pressured or bullied into reporting Alex’s behavior. Therefore, Hopkins did in fact investigate Alex’s claims that Panagos convinced other students to falsely accuse him of using the N-word. The court also rejected the parents’ argument that Hopkins failed to notify them of the Committee’s decision because they failed to identify a Handbook provision that required Hopkins to send written notice within a specified time period.
The court also held that Hopkins was unaware of Alex’s need for accommodation, and therefore could not have discriminated against him because of his disability. The court also found that Hopkins did investigate Alex’s claims of harassment and bullying. Alex’s parents told Jorgensen that Panagos sent Alex sexual memes on Instagram and posted a video on TikTok with audio of a gun being fired and text calling Alex a racist and accusing him of racial slurs. However, Panagos reported herself to Jorgensen and admitted she sent Alex inappropriate social media posts and posted the TikTok video. Jorgensen then met with Alex and told him that his allegations of harassment against Panagos would be subjected to a separate disciplinary procedure. The court rejected the parents’ argument that Hopkins failed to address the allegations of bullying and harassment because Hopkins did not discipline Panagos. Rather, the court found, that the Handbook does not guarantee that Hopkins would impose discipline for every report of misconduct.
The court also denied the parents’ negligence claim on similar grounds as the breach of contract and discrimination claims. The court stated that Hopkins showed “diligence, thoroughness, patience, and fairness” because it followed its Handbook, investigated the allegations, and uniformly enforced its rules and procedures when reports of misconduct were made.
Ranciato v. Hopkins Sch. (Conn. Super. Ct. July 1, 2022) 2022 WL 2426313.
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.