District's Indifference to Bullying and Harassment of Student with Asperger Syndrome States a 504/ADA Claim

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The school district in Preston ex rel. A.P. v. Hilton Cent. Sch. Dist., 112 LRP 36253 (W.D.N.Y. 07/11/12), claimed that because its staff's failure to investigate the bullying and harassment of a student was not based on the student's disability, the parents could not pursue a claim for disability harassment in violation of Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The District Court, however, ruled that the reasons why the staff failed to investigate reports of peer harassment against the high school student with Asperger Syndrome had no bearing on the parent's 504/ADA claims. This is not surprising when we look at the alleged sordid facts of this case. Please be advised that this article includes offensive language allegedly directed at this student with a disability. I feel it is important to include some of this language in order to accurately relate the bullying the student endured.

The student, A.P., was seventeen and attended Hilton Central High School during the 2009-2010 school year. He has Asperger Syndrome. During that school year he was routinely bullied by students in a Basic Electronics Class, who mocked him daily, including calling him "f*&#ing retard", "a*#hole", fag*#t, and "bitch". They also made comments disparaging  his cognitive abilities, such as "F*#* you, you autistic piece of s*#t." Despite  numerous complaints of this bullying behavior in this class and a meeting with the principal, the school did not take meaningful action to get the harassment to stop. Later in the year the student enrolled in a Construction class. In that class he was called "gay,"(and similar slurs) "retard," "a#*hole,"bitch," and "loser" during every class. Students also threw pencils and pieces of wood at him. A.P. complained to the classroom teacher, but no action was taken to discipline his tormentors. Eventually, A.P. found it difficult to attend school and his grades dropped by 40% in two of his classes. His parents alleged that A.P. tried to return to his classes, but the bullying and insults continued to the point that he was unable to function emotionally or academically. The parents filed suit for disability harassment under Section 504 and the ADA.

The school district's attorneys moved to dismiss the case arguing that the school staff did not act solely "by reason of [A.P.'s] disability." The district court, however, ruled that "liability for discrimination may be imputed to teachers and administrators for students' peer-to-peer harassment where those defendants displayed 'deliberate indifference' to the underlying harassment, where the harassment is itself motivated by discriminatory animus." The court noted that A.P.'s parents "allege that the cumulative effect of the harassment was that A.P. discontinued attending school, became profoundly disturbed, and was so emotionally crippled that he was unable to return to complete final exams." Moreover, the parents stated that they notified district employees on multiple occasions of the ongoing harassment, through telephone conversations, e-mail correspondence and sit down meetings. Those individuals, however, "failed to act, acquiesced in the harassment of A.P. by his peers because of his disability, and that the defendants' alleged conduct had the effect of denying A.P. access to educational opportunities." Thus, the court denied the school district's motion to dismiss and the lawsuit and the case, if not settled, will proceed.