In January, the Eighth Circuit issued an opinion in Estate of Chandler J. Barnwell v. Watson, a Section 504 case involving disability-based harassment. The parents claimed the school district violated Section 504 after it failed to intervene in the bullying of their disabled child, who eventually committed suicide. The court found the school was not on notice of the disability-based harassment and entered judgment for the school district.
Despite the fact that the parents expressed concern about the bullying to the school during IEP meetings, the court found that the lack of specificity of the parents’ complaints about the bullying, including the failure to specify time, place, and the students who were doing the bullying, did not put the school on notice: “A failure to proactively address such inchoate worries falls well short of establishing the level of bad faith or gross misjudgment needed to support a § 504 claim: § 504 does not create general tort liability for educational malpractice.”
Courts place a heavy burden on parents to report such incidents, sometimes more than once, before holding a school district accountable for the acts of another student. As an example, in this case, the child experienced bullying at the bus stop and eventually, he stopped taking the bus to school and his parents transported him to and from school. However, his parents did not report any of their child’s difficulties with riding the bus to the school. This case demonstrates the importance of parents expressing their concerns in clear, specific terms—preferably in writing—even if parents do not think the school district can, or will, take any affirmative action to correct an issue.