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Gentry v. Mountain Home School District

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Harrison Division

May 9, 2018




         Now pending before the Court are a Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 34), Statement of Facts (Doc. 35), and Brief in Support (Doc. 36), filed by Defendant Mountain Home School District ("the District"); a Response in Opposition to the Motion (Doc. 37), Brief in Support (Doc. 38), and Response to Statement of Facts (Doc. 39), by Plaintiff Patrick Gentry; and the District's Reply (Doc. 42). For the reasons set forth herein, the Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On January 20, 2014, Plaintiff Patrick Gentry, who was then a senior at Mountain Home High School, and a female student named Jamie Boelkens were seated in the auditorium of the school waiting for a program to begin, when they began discussing a teacher who had given them each a "B" in his class. The two students thought they had earned "A" grades.[1] The teacher they were discussing was Coach Ronnie Blevins, and the class in question was a college preparatory course called "Capstone." At some point, another student named Sarah Ross joined in Jamie's and Patrick's conversation. Sarah allegedly suggested that they report Coach Blevins to the office and write the letter "B" in chalk on his car; Jamie suggested they burn down his house; and Patrick suggested that they pour pigs' blood over his daughter at prom, just as in a scene from the horror movie Carrie. Patrick and Jamie maintain that this conversation was very brief, and that they were only joking and had no intention of following through on any of these threats.

         A couple of days later, on January 22, 2014, Patrick was called to the office and interrogated by Vice Principal Kyle McCarn and School Resource Officer Chester "Bubba" Jones concerning the statements Patrick had made about Coach Blevins and/or his daughter. Then Patrick's mother arrived at school and was advised both orally and in writing that Patrick would be suspended for ten days. Jamie received the same punishment. The discipline slip for Patrick listed the reason for the suspension as "abusive or threatening behavior." See Doc. 34-4. Patrick was also advised by Vice Principal McCarn that if he wanted permission to ask his teachers for the make-up work he missed during the suspension, he would need to complete ten days of community service. Finally, Patrick was asked which two teachers he wanted to serve on his disciplinary advisement committee, which would convene after he served his ten-day suspension. Patrick identified two teachers to serve on the committee, but he later testified that he was not told the purpose of the disciplinary advisement committee meeting, nor was the meeting referenced on his discipline slip. Patrick thought the committee was convening to verify he had completed his community service obligation.

         On February 7, 2014, following the suspension, Patrick and Jamie returned to school along with their parents to meet with their respective disciplinary advisement committees. Both meetings took place on the same day, but Patrick's occurred first. The persons in attendance at Patrick's meeting were his parents; two of his teachers, Carol Wegerer and Karen Maupin; Vice Principal McCarn and Vice Principal Lindsey Blevins;[2]and Jeff Kincade, the Director of the Guy Berry Alternative Learning Environment ("ALE"), which is an educational facility/intervention program affiliated with the Mountain Home School District, located on a campus apart from Mountain Home High School.

         Prior to meeting with Patrick and his parents, the staff and administrators on Patrick's committee met separately with Mr. Kincade. After that private meeting, the committee invited the Gentrys in, and it soon became clear that the committee had decided that Patrick should be expelled. They offered one alternative to expulsion: mandatory enrollment in the ALE for the rest of the semester. Mr. Kincade was present at the meeting to explain to the Gentrys what the ALE was and what Patrick could expect if he chose to attend in lieu of expulsion.

         In the course of the meeting, Patrick's parents informed the committee that they were concerned about sending Patrick to the ALE for a number of reasons. The ALE did not offer a college-preparatory curriculum, and the courses Patrick was in the middle of taking at Mountain Home High School were not offered at the ALE-including, for example, Spanish II and Linear Algebra. Patrick's parents did not feel assured that he would be able to complete these classes while attending the ALE. By that point, Patrick claims he had already been accepted to six colleges, see Doc. 18, p. 4, including his top choice, the University of Mississippi, which had offered him a scholarship, provided he could show proof that he was completing his graduation requirements-specifically his foreign language requirement. Patrick's parents understood that foreign language classes were not offered at the ALE. They were also worried about how Patrick's permanent record would be affected if he transferred to the ALE, and about whether his diploma would reference his graduation from the ALE, rather than from Mountain Home High School. Finally, Mrs. Gentry testified that they "were told he would have to wear a white jumpsuit" as a student of the ALE, and that even if Patrick were approved to take classes at Mountain Home High School, which was not assured, he "would be transported back and forth like a criminal...." (Doc. 37-4, p. 9).

         Mrs. Gentry supplied the Court with an affidavit that included further details about the February 7 committee meeting. She confirmed that she and her husband believed that placing Patrick in the ALE just before his graduation, based on his joking comment about a teacher's daughter, "was unacceptable." (Doc. 37-3, p. 3). Nevertheless, she understood "Patrick would be recommended for expulsion if [she and her husband] did not agree to send Patrick to the ALE, " and that if they attempted to enroll him in a high school outside the district, "Patrick's permanent record would reflect either the recommendation for expulsion or assignment to the ALE, and this would follow him to any Arkansas school district." Id. In order to avoid the committee voting on the issue and making the decision final, Patrick and his parents walked out of the meeting, and the committee tabled its decision.

         Immediately after Patrick's meeting ended, Jamie's disciplinary committee meeting began. The ALE director had not been invited to attend Jamie's meeting. According to Jamie's affidavit, her meeting was "short, " and she "was allowed to return to school without any further punishment, " despite having admitted to the committee that she had joked about burning down Coach Blevins's house. (Doc. 37-16, p. 2).

         Since Patrick's committee meeting ended without a formal recommendation, Patrick and his parents contemplated moving him to another school district. The same day as the meeting, February 7, Patrick began completing a form provided to him by the high school called an Exit/Withdrawal Report (Doc. 34-10). This Report states that the reason Patrick was withdrawing from the District was that he was "moving to Bull Shoals-Enrolling in Flippin." Id. The form was signed by all required parties except Patrick's counselor. See id.

         Because of the lack of all required signatures, and for other reasons that will be explained in the course of this Opinion, the parties currently disagree about whether Patrick completed the necessary paperwork to formally withdraw on February 7, or whether the decision to withdraw was left somewhat up in the air. Just three days after the committee meeting, on February 10, Patrick's mother called the high school and spoke with Principal Dana Brown and shared with her the family's concerns about Patrick's proposed discipline. Patrick had forwarded his mother a series of text messages between a teacher from Mountain Home High School and Jamie. To Mrs. Gentry, these text messages indicated that certain school personnel intended for Patrick to shoulder all the blame for the comments that both he and Jamie had made. See Docs. 37-3, p. 3; Doc. 37-16. Also, by that time, Mrs. Gentry had discovered that Jamie had been permitted to return to school without further punishment, but Patrick had been faced with the choice of expulsion or transferring to the ALE.

         Mrs. Gentry met with Principal Brown on February 11, the day after the phone call. Several other persons joined the meeting, including Vice Principals McCarn and Blevins, School Resource Officer Jones, and Coach Blevins. Mrs. Gentry described Principal Brown as "very, very upset. . . and very angry" because "Officer Jones told her it was obvious that Patrick never intended any harm . . . ." (Doc. 37-4, pp. 6-7). Mrs. Gentry asked Principal Brown for a copy of Patrick's discipline record, since it was apparently not discussed during the February 7 committee meeting.[3] Principal Brown told Mrs. Gentry that the school may not have the record anymore. (Doc. 37-3, p. 3). But at a later point in the meeting, someone procured the discipline file and delivered it to Principal Brown. Id. at 4. Mrs. Gentry then asked if there were any notes from Vice Principal McCam's interrogation of Patrick from January 22, and she was told there were not. Mrs. Gentry also asked all those assembled why Jamie did not receive the same punishment as Patrick. Id. She claims she did not receive an answer. At the end of the meeting, Mrs. Gentry told the Principal that she wanted to resume the disciplinary committee meeting and "get a decision." (Doc. 37-3, p. 4). She did so with the apparent understanding that Patrick's withdrawal from Mountain Home High School was not final, and that she did not need "to do anything to either stop the withdrawal process or to reenroll Patrick as a District student." Id. [4]

         Patrick's disciplinary committee reconvened the following morning, February 12. Again, the committee met before Patrick and his parents were allowed to enter. When the Gentrys joined the meeting, they were informed that the recommendation was the same: expulsion or the ALE. The summary judgment record contains handwritten notes that the District represents were taken during the meeting, see Doc. 34-12, p. 2, possibly by Principal Brown, who was not a committee member, but was nonetheless present. The notes indicate that the Gentrys asked the committee: "why did girl get different punishment." Id. At the end of the meeting, Patrick's parents voiced their disagreement with the committee's decision and refused to sign a form that Principal Brown prepared that contained a brief description of the incident involving Patrick, as well as the final recommendations of the committee. (Doc. 34-12, p. 1). Mrs. Gentry claims she refused to sign the form because she believed Principal Brown's "description of the incident included statements Patrick denied saying." (Doc. 37-3, p. 5).

         Mrs. Gentry also told Principal Brown that she wanted to appeal the committee's decision, and Principal Brown advised her that she would contact the Assistant Superintendent on her behalf. Principal Brown admits that she gave nothing in writing to Mrs. Gentry that explained the proper steps that a parent should follow in seeking review of the committee's decision. See Doc. 37-9, pp. 16-17. The only option she mentioned to Mrs. Gentry was appealing to the Superintendent. Instead of notifying him, though, Principal Brown contacted the Assistant Superintendent, Leigh Ann Gigliotti, and communicated to her the Gentrys' dissatisfaction with the committee's decision. Id. at 11. Vice Principal McCarn also testified that he did not specifically recall who forwarded the committee's recommendation to the Assistant Superintendent for review, but he believed that someone did. (Doc. 37-13, p. 21).

         Mrs. Gentry met in person with Assistant Superintendent Gigliotti after the committee's February 12 decision, and told her what had happened, including the family's complaint that Jamie had been treated more favorably than Patrick due to her gender. According to Mrs. Gentry, the Assistant Superintendent informed her she would review the matter and make a decision by the end of the day. (Doc. 37-2, p. 5). That same afternoon, the Assistant Superintendent called Mrs. Gentry and told her the decision of the committee would stand. Id. There is no information in the record to indicate what evidence, if any, the Assistant Superintendent reviewed, and the Assistant Superintendent's deposition-if it was taken-is not included in the record. Moreover, all of the committee members were deposed, and none of them testified that they forwarded anything in writing to the Assistant Superintendent for her review.

         After the Assistant Superintendent told Mrs. Gentry that the committee's decision was approved, Mrs. Gentry requested to speak with the Superintendent about Patrick's case, since the Gentrys still disagreed with the recommendation. According to Mrs. Gentry, the Assistant Superintendent told her that she would make sure the Superintendent got the message. He apparently never did. The Superintendent, Dr. Lonnie Myers, testified during his deposition that he remembered a single telephone conversation with Principal Brown, prior to Patrick's disciplinary committee meeting, "about a placement at Guy Berry, " (Doc. 37-14, p. 5), but he claims he never received anything in writing about Patrick's or Jamie's specific cases, and he was never provided with the facts, documents, or other evidence that was reviewed by the disciplinary committee, id. at 6. Dr. Myers also admitted that he had no knowledge of any of the facts supporting the committee's recommendation to expel Patrick or else transfer him to the ALE. All Dr. Myers could recall was that a student had made "a threat to a student and a threat to a teacher." Id. at 9. He further testified that neither the Principal, the Assistant Superintendent, nor any disciplinary committee member ever asked him to review the committee's decision, id. at 13; and he was never informed that the Assistant Superintendent met with Mrs. Gentry after February 12, or that Mrs. Gentry wanted to speak with him, id. at 11-12. Nevertheless, Dr. Myers agreed that the Assistant Superintendent may have been vested with the authority to overrule the committee's recommendation in his absence. Id. at 12.

         After Mrs. Gentry met with the Assistant Superintendent, she tried to set up a meeting with the Superintendent by calling his office "repeatedly" over the next two weeks. (Doc. 37-3, p. 6). At that point, Patrick had been out of school for around a month. When she failed to hear anything from the Superintendent, Mrs. Gentry decided to enroll Patrick in the Flippin School District, where he completed his senior year and then began attending the University of Arkansas. Mrs. Gentry admits that she never appealed the committee's final decision in writing to the Superintendent, nor did she send a written appeal to the school board. By the same token, Principal Brown admits that she only told the Gentrys orally "that they could go to the Superintendent" to appeal if they were dissatisfied with the committee's decision, (Doc. 37-9, p. 15), and she never informed them this request should be in writing or should otherwise be directed to the school board, id. at 16.

         Turning now to Patrick's claims for relief, they are made pursuant to Title IX, as codified at 20 U.S.C. §§ 1681-1688, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Beginning with the Title IX claim, Patrick contends that school officials administered a more severe punishment to him, as compared to Jamie, for making the same sorts of statements, and that the disparate punishment he received was motivated by gender, or that gender discrimination was the source of his alleged deprivations.

         As for Patrick's § 1983 claims, he maintains that the District violated his constitutional rights to equal protection and to due process. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the state from discriminating against an individual due to gender. The Due Process clause requires that sufficient process be afforded one whose protected life, liberty, or property interest is at stake. Here, Patrick argues in opposition to summary judgment that the District had a policy or custom of discriminating on the basis of gender, and that the administrative process that he received concerning how he was disciplined in response to this incident was fundamentally flawed, incomplete, and violative of his constitutional rights. Below, the Court will begin its discussion by reviewing the legal standard required when considering a motion for summary judgment. Then, the ...

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