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Arceneaux v. Klein Independent School District

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

May 22, 2018



          Lee H. Rosenthal United States District Judge

         LaShan Arceneaux, the mother of M.O., a minor, sued the Klein Independent School District and several teachers and administrators at Klein Oak High School, alleging that they violated M.O.'s rights by disciplining and harassing her for sitting during the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. The plaintiffs allege that the defendants failed to prevent continuing harassment and constitutional violations because they did not discipline school employees and allowed M.O. to be bullied by other students. The allegations include many incidents of discipline and harassment by four teachers (Benjie Arnold, Stephen Naetzker, Jennifer Walton, and Angie Richard) and three school principals (Lance Alexander, Kimberly Walters, and non-defendant Chad Crowson), over a three-and-a-half-year period, which caused Arceneaux to withdraw M.O. from Klein Oak in favor of home school. The plaintiffs allege that Arceneaux notified Klein ISD Superintendent Bret Champion that she had exempted M.O. from observing the Pledge recitation and that Klein Oak's response to the harassment was inadequate. Klein ISD's counsel sent Arceneaux a letter stating that the District's written Pledge Policy allowed students to be excused from participating in the Pledge recitation. The plaintiffs allege that the harassment by teachers and students continued. In addition to the claims Arceneaux brings as M.O.'s next friend, she asserts an equal-protection claim in her individual capacity, alleging that the defendants treated her differently from other, similarly situated parents who wanted their children exempt from the requirement to stand and recite the Pledge.

         At the initial pretrial conference held in February 2018, the court granted the plaintiffs leave to amend to more clearly address Croft v. Perry, 624 F.3d 157 (5th Cir. 2010), which held that the Texas statute on which the Klein ISD Pledge Policy is based did not violate the Establishment Clause, and to more clearly address municipal liability. The plaintiffs filed a second amended complaint, the defendants moved to dismiss, the plaintiffs responded, and the defendants replied. (Docket Entries No. 37, 39, 40, 43, 46, 47). The second amended complaint adds allegations against Angie Richard, a teacher and debate coach at Klein Oak, who allegedly retaliated against M.O. after this lawsuit was filed.

         The allegations about the knowledge of the Klein ISD Board of Trustees, the District's policymaker, are that: (1) in November 2016, Arceneaux sent an email to Principal Brian Greeney and Superintendent Champion, informing them that the school was not adequately addressing the harassment; (2) in August 2017, the plaintiffs' counsel sent Superintendent Champion a letter stating that they intended to bring this lawsuit; and (3) after Klein ISD's outside counsel responded to that letter, and after M.O. filed this suit, the harassment continued. The plaintiffs argue that, based on a Klein ISD policy that requires the superintendent to “[k]eep the Board continuously informed on issues, needs, and operations of the District, ” the court can infer that Superintendent Champion reported the issue and the threat of litigation to the Board. At the motion-to-dismiss stage, these allegations are enough to allow discovery on the policy or custom of requiring students to stand during the Pledge and of disciplining or harassing students who refused.

         The second amended complaint asserts six causes of action: (1) a free-speech claim; (2) an Establishment Clause claim; (3) a free-exercise claim; (4) an equal-protection claim on M.O.'s behalf; (5) another equal-protection claim on LaShan Arceneaux's behalf; and (6) a due-process claim. Based on careful review of the pleadings; the motions, responses, and replies; the record; the applicable law; and the arguments of counsel, the motions to dismiss, (Docket Entries No. 39, 40, 46), are granted in part and denied in part. The free-speech claim, the free-exercise claim, and the equal-protection claim on M.O.'s behalf are adequately pleaded, and the plaintiffs have alleged enough facts on municipal liability to withstand dismissal. The due-process claim and the equal-protection claim on behalf of Arceneaux lack merit, and Croft forecloses the Establishment Clause claim. Count 2 (the Establishment Clause claim), count 5 (Arceneaux's equal-protection claim), and count 6 (the due-process claim) are dismissed, with prejudice and without leave to amend, because further amendment would be futile. Count 1 (the free-speech claim), count 3 (the free-exercise claim), and count 4 (M.O.'s equal-protection claim) are adequately pleaded and may go forward.

         The reasons for these rulings are explained below.

         I. Background

         The Klein ISD Pledge Policy, which tracks a Texas statute, provides:

A board shall require students, once during each school day, to recite the pledges of allegiance to the United States and Texas flags.
On written request from a student's parent or guardian, a district shall excuse the student from reciting a pledge of allegiance.

(Docket Entry No. 37 ¶ 21).

         At Klein Oak High School, the Pledge is recited every morning. M.O. is a 17-year-old student at Klein Oak who sits during and does not recite the Pledge. The plaintiffs allege several instances of harassment by school employees and students based on M.O.'s refusal to stand during the Pledge.

         In September 2014, in Stephen Naetzker's World Geography class, M.O. sat during the Pledge. Naetzker issued M.O. a write-up and sent her to Principal Kimberly Walters's office. Principal Walters told M.O. that because of Naetzker's military service, he had the right to write her up for not standing during the Pledge. On November 26, 2014, Naetzker confiscated M.O.'s phone because she demonstrated a “lack of respect” by sitting during the Pledge. (Id. ¶ 35). At the end of the day, Naetzker gave M.O.'s phone to Principal Walters, who returned it to M.O. and told her that they would discuss the issue after the Thanksgiving break. M.O. alleges that Principal Walters took no action against Naetzker and did not discuss the issue with her after the break. The plaintiffs also allege that, on several occasions in the spring 2015 semester, Naetzker read Bible passages to the World Geography class.

         In the fall semester of 2015, Jennifer Walton, the Journalism teacher, instructed M.O. to stand during the Pledge. M.O. refused. After M.O. and Walton discussed the issue, Walton allegedly “singled out” M.O. for sitting, and again instructed her to stand. M.O. again refused. Walton continued to “single M.O. out” and instruct her to stand during the Pledge throughout the semester; M.O. continued to sit. M.O. talked to the school guidance counselor, Margaret Bollato, who recommended that “M.O. either stand for the Pledge in Walton's class or switch out of Walton's class at the winter break in order to avoid the conflict.” (Id. ¶ 42). M.O. switched out of the class between the fall and spring semesters.

         In the spring semester of 2016, M.O. was walking in the hall when the Pledge recitation began on the intercom system. M.O. encountered Principal Lance Alexander, who instructed her to stop walking during the Pledge. When M.O. continued walking, Principal Alexander “rolled his eyes and made a disapproving noise.” (Id. ¶ 46). The same day, M.O. spoke with Principal Walters about the incident and asked Walters to tell Principal Alexander and others that M.O. did not have to stop walking during the Pledge.

         In the summer of 2016, Arceneaux and M.O. met with Dr. Brian Greeney, a new principal at Klein Oak, to discuss steps to avoid conflicts over the Pledge. Principal Greeney assured them that nothing would happen in the coming school year and that he would speak to the teachers and staff in training sessions before the year began.

         On November 11, 2016, Veteran's Day, M.O. sat during the Pledge. While the teacher was out of the classroom, another student, H.R., stood up and called M.O. a “bitch.” (Id. ¶ 52). Later that day, H.R. posted photos of M.O. on social media with a caption stating: “[l]ike if you don't respect country then get the fuck out of it.” (Id. ¶ 53). Arceneaux sent Principal Walters an email expressing concerns about her daughter's treatment, and asking her to address the issue, adding: “I will stand behind my daughter's right to not say the pledge (in a silent, respectful manner).” (Id. ¶ 54). The same day, H.R. apologized to M.O. in Principal Walters's office. Three days later, Arceneaux sent an email to Principal Greeney and Klein ISD Superintendent Bret Champion, stating that the school's response to the issue was inadequate.

         On December 9, 2016, H.R. encountered M.O. and said to a classmate, in front of M.O., “[t]here's that bitch that sits for the Pledge.” (Id. ¶ 58). After hearing about the second incident between M.O. and H.R., Arceneaux telephoned Principal Walters, asked her to meet to discuss the incident, and stated in the phone call that she was considering legal action against the school district. M.O. came to Principal Walters's office during the phone call. After Arceneaux stated that she was considering a lawsuit, Principal Walters called for backup. Other school principals and armed school police officers arrived and waited outside Principal Walters's office. After Arceneaux and Principal Walters finished talking on the phone, the principals and officers escorted M.O. to her classroom to gather her things and to the door, until Arceneaux could come to Klein Oak to discuss the incident. As M.O. was escorted out, Principal Crowson (not a defendant) “accused M.O. of acting like a criminal.” (Id. ¶ 64). When Arceneaux arrived, she talked with M.O. and Principal Greeney. Arceneaux reiterated her intent to sue the school district. The next day, H.R. was removed from the classes she shared with M.O. for the rest of the semester.

         On the first day of the spring semester of 2017, Principal Greeney removed M.O. from Benjie Arnold's Sociology class to avoid a conflict between them over M.O. sitting during the Pledge. Shortly after, Arceneaux withdrew M.O. from Klein Oak in favor of home schooling. Arceneaux incurred $10, 000 in home schooling costs.

         In a letter dated August 15, 2017, Arceneaux informed Klein Oak that M.O. would be returning to school for the 2017-2018 academic year and asked Principal Thomas Henley “to ensure that [M.O.'s] constitutional rights are respected during her final year at Klein Oak.” (Id. ¶ 80). In an August 22, 2017 letter, Klein ISD's outside counsel responded that “KISD Policy allows a student to be excused from participation in the Pledge of Allegiance, ” and that school administrators were “aware [M.O. would be] returning to Klein Oak High School, and they are pleased that she is.” (Id. ¶ 81).

         When M.O. returned to Klein Oak, she experienced several Pledge-related incidents. On August 24, 2017, Arnold told M.O. and the other students in the class that standing for the Pledge was a privilege, not a right, and that people who sit for the Pledge were “unappreciative, ” “disrespectful, ” and “take from society.” (Id. ¶ 85). On September 20, 2017, Arnold played Springsteen's “Born in the U.S.A.” Arnold apparently did not listen to the words or he did not understand them. He instructed the class to write down how the song made them feel. He also gave the students a timed writing assignment to write down the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, which, predictably, M.O. did not complete. Arnold told the class that those who did not complete the Pledge assignment would receive a zero. He compared people who refuse to say the Pledge to “Soviet communists, members of the Islamic faith seeking to impose Sharia law, and those who condone pedophilia.” (Id. ¶ 87). Throughout the semester, Arnold was harsher toward M.O. than other students, berating her for wrong answers and making her move her desk into the middle of the aisle.

         The plaintiffs allege that Angie Richard, a teacher and debate coach, retaliated against M.O. based on this case. Soon after this suit was filed, Richard intervened to prevent students from talking with M.O. about the case. At a weekend debate-team event at Klein Oak, another student, J., told M.O. to “go fuck off” and to “go fuck yourself.” (Id. ¶ 90). M.O. reported the incident to Richard. Although J. admitted making the statements, Richard told M.O. not to report the incident to the school until the following Monday, to avoid giving the school a bad reputation at the debate event. J. was not disciplined for these actions.

         In December 2017, another student stole food from M.O.'s bookbag during Richard's class. The student admitted the theft to Richard but received no discipline. The same month, Richard repeatedly asked M.O. for details about her lawsuit and about how students were treating her. When M.O. refused to discuss the case, Richard threatened to send her to the principal's office, and at one point shouted “[f]ine, just ignore me” during class time. (Id. ΒΆ 95). Richard also allegedly withheld information about debate-team events from M.O., demoted M.O. on the debate team, told other ...

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