Despite Incidents of Abuse, the District Did Not Act with Deliberate Indifference

Nicole Harrison is the mother of B.F., a minor child with multiple physical and cognitive disabilities, including communication problems, problems with walking and balance, and an inability to handle his own toileting. Born in May 2008, B.F. was 8 years old during the 2016–2017 school year, but functioned at a much younger age level.

On July 11, 2018, Harrison filed suit, asserting disability discrimination claims against KISD and certain school personnel. Harrison asserted that KISD discriminated against B.F. based on his disabilities, and failed to reasonably accommodate those disabilities, in violation of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. Additionally, contending that B.F. suffered abuse from and harassment by school staff members, Harrison also alleges that KISD failed to provide a non-hostile educational environment for B.F., in violation of the Rehabilitation Act.

The district court granted a pretrial judgment in KISD’s favor, reasoning that the evidence failed to establish the existence of a genuine factual dispute regarding whether KISD had acted with deliberate indifference relative to B.F.’s rights under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. Harrison appealed and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

The suit alleged that KISD inadequately staffed B.F.’s care in that it failed to use the number of competent staff members necessary to protect B.F. from injury at school, particularly including incidents of abuse by school staff, and to provide necessary supervision, care, and assistance with ambulation, toileting, and hygiene, including diaper changes.

Both the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act require Harrison to establish that: (1) B.F. is a qualified individual with a disability within the meaning of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or the ADA; (2) B.F. was excluded from participation in, or was denied benefits of, services, programs, or activities for which the school district is responsible; (3) B.F.’s exclusion, denial of benefits, or discrimination was by reason of his disability; and (4) the exclusion, denial of benefits, or discrimination was intentional.

The Court observed, however, that a mere disagreement with the correctness of educational services provided, however, does not state a discrimination claim. Moreover, the “intentional” element of Harrison’s claims may be satisfied by evidence establishing “deliberate indifference.”

The record fell short in this case.  It showed that when school administrators became aware of incidents of staff misconduct related to B.F., they promptly undertook thorough investigations and notified other pertinent KISD personnel.  Two staff members were immediately removed from the classroom, their employment ended, and both Child Protective Services and the KISD police department were notified. Also, a bus driver was immediately reassigned from B.F.’s route. In addition, Harrison was promptly apprised of KISD’s resolution of each of these incidents. Because the evidence did not support a finding of deliberate indifference by KISD, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment dismissing the suit. The case is Harrison v. Klein Indep. Sch. Dist., No. 20-20115, 2021 WL 1305871 (5th Cir. Apr. 7, 2021).

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