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Court Affirms Dismissal of Parent’s Suit Challenging School’s Communication Plan Setting Reasonable Limits on Father’s Constant, Aggressive E-mails

By on January 28, 2020 in Special Education/504 with 0 Comments

In the world of special education, parents come in all shapes and sizes in terms of their mode of interaction with the child study team and school personnel.  Some parents of special needs children are cordial, while others are friendly and appreciative.  Some are matter-of-fact, while others can be much more emotional or animated.  Special education parents come with varying degrees of how engaged they are or wish to be in the process of planning and communicating with the school district child study team.  For the thousands of child study team members around the country who serve as case managers, working every day to implement the mandate of the IDEA and follow the complex set of procedural and substantive legal requirements that it implements for the education of special needs children, most can think of one or two families on their case load of students who are, well, a little “demanding” for lack of a better word, in terms of their desired level of communication with the school district.

So what happens when a child study team encounters a parent who sends e-mails every day or multiple times a day, expecting an immediate response from the case manager?  What happens when the level of parental communication is so excessive in its frequency or level of detail that it becomes burdensome for the child study team to constantly have to respond?  What about parents who send derogatory, harassing, hostile, or intimidating e-mails, letters, or phone calls to the team?

In a recent case, issued on January 17, 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by a parent who claimed that a Washington school district which had put in place a communication plan that limited the parent’s communication with school district personnel in an effort to curtail the parent’s habit of constantly sending time-consuming and intimidating e-mails.  L.F. ex rel. K.S.F. & K.S.F. v. Lake Washington Sch. Dist. #414, No. 18-35792, 120 L.R.P. 1811 (9th Cir. 2020).  In L.F., the father of two daughters with anxiety and behavioral disorders had developed “an unproductive communication pattern” with the school guidance staff on his daughter’s Section 504 team, “sending incessant e-mails to staff accusing them of wrongdoing; making presumptuous demands; leveling demeaning insults; . . . and in face-to-face interactions, acting in an aggressive, hostile, and intimidating manner.”  The district employees complained that the father’s e-mails were extraordinarily time-consuming and made them feel threatened and intimidated.  As a result, the team developed a “communication plan” under which the child study team would no longer respond to the father’s constant e-mails about substantive issues concerning his daughter’s Section 504 plan.  Instead, under the plan, the father would have the opportunity to meet with district administrators every other week to discuss any parental concerns.  Later, after the father violated the plan by sending additional e-mails, the school district modified the plan to further limit the meetings with administrators from bi-weekly to once per month.

The father brought suit, asserting Section 1983 claims, arguing that the school district’s communication plan violated his First Amendment rights to free speech and constituted retaliation under Section 504 for his advocacy concerning his daughters’ special needs.  In affirming the grant of summary decision in favor of the school district, the Ninth Circuit held that no First Amendment violation occurred, because “the communication plan regulated the District’s conduct, not ‘the parent’s.]”  The court found that the plan was reasonable in light of the parent’s repeated e-mails to school staff.  Further, the three-judge panel noted that, even if the plan had restricted the parent’s free speech (which it did not), it still would not violate his First Amendment rights.  The court explained that the school was not an “open public forum,” but rather, a “limited public forum” in which the school district could set reasonable “time, place, and manner” restrictions on the parent’s communications with district staff.  Importantly, the bi-weekly meetings with administration permitted the parent an opportunity to meaningfully participate in the process and express parental concerns.

In sum, in cases where extreme, excessive, or offensive communications from parents become a burden on the child study team or district administration, school districts can put in place reasonable restrictions on parental communication.  The team should take care to design a plan that outlines the method of communication for the team in responding to excessive parental communication, meaning implementing strategies to deal with excessive communication from the parent, rather than purporting to control or restrict the communication of the parent directly, which generally cannot be controlled.  Districts should use caution, however, to do so through the formal IEP or Section 504 meeting process, and to clearly set forth any restrictions or limitations in a written communication plan incorporated into the student’s IEP or Section 504 plan. 

In doing so, the school district should pay special attention to ensure there are adequate alternative avenues for the parent to communicate parental concerns in a non-burdensome manner.  So long as the plan is reasonable in light of the parent’s pattern of excessive or aggressive communication, and provides alternative methods and means of parental communication and participation, the district should be able to avoid liability or a finding that it has unreasonably impaired the parent’s ability to meaningfully participate in the process of discussing and planning for their child’s education.

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Cameron R. Morgan

About the Author

About the Author:

Mr. Morgan has served the public school districts of the State of New Jersey in the specialized area of school law, representing boards of education in all aspects of their legal needs, with a focus on general counsel services, civil litigation, special education, administrative law, collective negotiations, labor and employment, and appellate practice. He has served as Board Solicitor to dozens of school districts, guiding district administrators through the diverse range of issues affecting the public schools, from personnel matters, tenure cases, and the range of issues that frequently arise at public board meetings, to student disciplinary matters, residency disputes, and homelessness issues, to complex matters involving the budgetary process or First Amendment rights.

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