Student Raises Concerns About School’s Investigation Of Misconduct And Discipline Following Video Of Student Using A Racial Slur

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Apr 28, 2023

In January 2021, a video clip circulated of a senior high school student at the Wardlaw-Hartridge School using a racial epithet. The video is a two-second clip, recorded approximately two years prior to it being circulated, of the student using the n-word. Another Wardlaw student emailed the video clip to Wagner’s Director of Admissions and the head coach of its soccer program on January 3, 2021. Three days later, the video clip was posted on Instagram and TikTok and then deleted the same day. A third Wardlaw student participated in creating the accounts or posting the clip.

Wardlaw administrators met with or spoke to the student in the clip and her parents several times about the video clip over the next three months. On at least one occasion, Wardlaw questioned the student in the clip over Zoom and recorded it but did not notify her parents. On another occasion, Wardlaw required the student to appear before a “judging board” comprised of teachers and students but did not allow her parents or lawyer to attend the hearing. Wardlaw did not investigate or hold a similar hearing for any students suspected to be involved with circulating the clip, despite the student in the clip and her parents’ complaints to administrators that these students were bullying and harassing her. Wardlaw also did not investigate the video clip’s authenticity, despite the parents and student expressing concern that the clip appeared to have been doctored and fabricated.

Wardlaw’s investigative findings were that the student in the clip failed to immediately acknowledge that the video was real, failed to be truthful with the judiciary board, and belatedly took responsibility and expressed desires to learn and make amends. Wardlaw disciplined the student in the clip, and neither allowed her to attend in-person classes or activities for the remainder of the academic year, nor walk in the graduation ceremony. Wardlaw gave her assignments to complete at home and required her to see a therapist. If she satisfied these conditions, Wardlaw would issue her diploma at the end of the school year. Wardlaw also withheld her honors and awards and delayed the release of her transcript and letters of recommendation for college applications.

The student in the clip had signed a National Letter of Intent (NLI) to play for Wagner College’s soccer program, and Wagner College rescinded its offer of admission and scholarship for violating the NLI by engaging in serious misconduct.

The student and her parents (Plaintiffs) brought claims against Wardlaw, Wagner College, and the two students alleged to have disseminated the clip (Defendants). The Plaintiffs asserted several claims, including breach of contract; violation of the student’s freedom of speech under the New Jersey State Constitution; intentional and willful disregard or gross negligence; violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; negligent infliction of emotional distress; intentional inflection of emotional distress; interference with economic, educational, and financial relationships. The Defendants moved to dismiss the claims.

Wardlaw argued that the parents lacked standing to bring Title VI claims on their daughter’s behalf because they could not show that they were injured nor could they show any facts of discrimination. The Court determined that the Plaintiffs appeared to assert a theory of liability under Title VI based on an allegedly racially hostile environment at Wardlaw. The Plaintiffs argued that Wardlaw failed to stop and discipline members of the student body that created an organization based on race who were instrumental in the bullying and harassment of the student in the clip, which ultimately led her to disciplinary actions and sabotaged her college acceptance and scholarship.  Wardlaw argued that: (1) the parents do not have standing to bring a claim; (2) Wardlaw does not receive federal funds requiring them to comply with Title VI; and (3) the parents fail to allege that Wardlaw took any action towards them because of their race or national origin.

The parents argued that they have standing by virtue of the in loco parentis doctrine and that Wardlaw breached the duty of care it owed to the parents of its students. The Court ruled that the in loco parentis doctrine applies to negligence claims, not to establishing standing to bring a claim. As such, the parents have not suffered an injury as a result of Wardlaw’s alleged violation of Title VI. The Court also noted that the Plaintiffs failed to allege that Wardlaw received federal funding to subject them to Title VI and the Plaintiffs failed to show that there was severe or pervasive harassment at Wardlaw based on a student’s race.  Only two incidents the Plaintiffs raised were allegedly based on the student in the clip’s race—the Wardlaw student’s two social media posts. These two posts were four months apart and did not rise to the level of severe or pervasive harassment. As a result, the Court dismissed the Plaintiffs’ Title VI claims against all Defendants.

This case was brought in federal court, and the only federal claim was the Title VI claim, which the Court dismissed. The Court remanded the case to the New Jersey state court to address the remaining state law claims.

Wysocki v. Wardlaw-Hartridge School (D.N.J., Mar. 31, 2023) 2023 WL 2728807.

Note: While one claim, in this case, was dismissed, LCW will monitor the state law claims for future developments. Here, the student raised concerns about the School’s investigation, namely that she was recorded without consent, not allowed to have a parent or lawyer in the room while she was questioned, and that the School did not properly investigate the other students involved in the incident. When schools are investigating incidents, it is important to keep these concerns in mind and ensure their investigative process is fair and complies with any relevant school policies and/or legal requirements.

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