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T.S. v. Talladega County Board of Education

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

August 6, 2019

T.S., a minor, by and through his parents and legal guardians, TROY STEPHENSON and MISTY STEPHENSON, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff T.S., a Childersburg Middle School student, wrote President Donald Trump's name on Defendant Anita Foy's classroom whiteboard two days after the 2016 presidential election. Ms. Foy issued a disciplinary referral to T.S. for violating a school rule limiting discussion of the election to history class. The school's assistant principal, Defendant Michael Bynum, punished T.S. by paddling him.

         T.S., by and through his parents and legal guardians, filed this lawsuit alleging that Ms. Foy, Mr. Bynum, and Defendant Talladega County Board of Education (the “Board”) violated his constitutional rights. The following claims remain pending: (1) T.S.'s § 1983 free speech claim against the Board, and Ms. Foy and Mr. Bynum in their individual capacities (Count One); (2) T.S.'s § 1983 due process claim against the Board and Mr. Bynum in his individual capacity (Count Two); and (3) state law assault, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims against Mr. Bynum in his individual capacity (Counts Three and Four).[1]

         Before the court are Defendants' motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 36, 37). Because Ms. Foy and Mr. Bynum did not violate T.S.'s constitutional rights, Ms. Foy and Mr. Bynum are entitled to qualified immunity on T.S.'s § 1983 claims against them, and the Board is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Therefore, the court WILL GRANT the motions for summary judgment with respect to T.S.'s § 1983 claims. In the absence of an independent basis for jurisdiction over T.S.'s state law claims against Mr. Bynum, the court will decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the claims.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court “draw[s] all inferences and review[s] all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Hamilton v. Southland Christian Sch., Inc., 680 F.3d 1316, 1318 (11th Cir. 2012) (quotation marks omitted).

         The events giving rise to this lawsuit took place at Childersburg Middle School in the days before and after the 2016 presidential election. (Doc. 38-1 at 20). In the weeks leading up to the election, Assistant Principal Michael Bynum[2] “heard reports of disruptions and unrest in other schools around the area in regards to the election.” (Doc. 38-5 at 51). The day after the election, Mr. Bynum received a report that students at Childersburg Middle School were “wound up about the election and were very loud and rowdy in the halls, ” (doc. 38-7 at 3; see also doc. 38-5 at 40, 51), causing “disruption in the hall regarding the election results” (doc. 38-5 at 42). Mr. Bynum testified that “[i]n an effort to make sure that the school was not disrupted, ” he asked a school staff member to make “a general announcement . . . that all discussions of the election take place in only the history classroom so as not to disrupt other classes or the hallways.” (Doc. 38-5 at 40; see also Doc. 38-11 at 2).

         Consistent with Mr. Bynum's instruction, the staff member “made an announcement over the school's public address system that discussions of the presidential election were to be limited to history class in order to avoid disruptions in classes or in the hallways and that disruptions would be treated as disciplinary infractions.” (Doc. 38-11 at 2-3; see also Doc. 38-12 at 3). T.S., then in 8th grade, was at school when the announcement was made, but he does not remember hearing the announcement. (Doc. 38-1 at 37; Doc. 38-3 at 27; Doc. 38-5 at 23).

         At Childersburg Middle School, students are expected to report directly to their homeroom when they arrive at school. (Doc. 38-5 at 61; Doc. 38-12 at 3). A student's first period class also serves as his homeroom. (Doc. 38-12 at 3). During the homeroom period, teachers take attendance and make announcements, and students work on academic assignments. (Doc. 38-7 at 4; Doc. 38-8 at 3). T.S.'s assigned homeroom and first period was in Dottie Montgomery's history class. (Doc. 38-1 at 23-24; Doc. 38-12 at 2).

         Two days after the election, instead of reporting to his assigned homeroom period in Ms. Montgomery's classroom, T.S. went directly to Ms. Foy's classroom without Ms. Foy's or Ms. Montgomery's permission. (Doc. 38-7 at 3; Doc. 38-12 at 3). Upon entering, T.S. wrote “Trump 2016” on Ms. Foy's whiteboard. (Doc. 38-1 at 28-30; Doc. 38-8 at 2-3). T.S. testified that he “heard a lot of arguing, ” and “a handful” of the 15 students in Ms. Foy's class were “upset” about what he wrote on the board. (Doc. 38-1 at 33-34). When other students complained, T.S. “argued a bit” with them and “rub[bed] it in their face [that President Trump won].” (Doc. 38-1 at 34-35).

         T.S. left Ms. Foy's classroom and went to the restroom. (Doc. 38-1 at 42). When he left the restroom, Ms. Foy approached him in the hallway and told T.S. that he should not have written “Trump 2016” on her whiteboard because “it started a lot of fights and argument.” (Doc. 38-1 at 43-44). Ms. Foy did not say anything else about the presidential candidates during this discussion with T.S. (Doc. 38-1 at 44- 45).

         Ms. Foy walked T.S. back to Ms. Montgomery's classroom and told Ms. Montgomery what happened. (Doc. 38-1 at 45). Ms. Foy then issued a discipline referral to T.S. (Doc. 38-1 at 45). The discipline referral form states:

Students were told on yesterday because of the sensitivity of the matter, not to discuss the election unless it was in History class. They were told any discussion would result in an office referral. T. decided to write “Trump” on my board this morning, disregarding others that were in the classroom. This resulted in some upset students. I informed student that the name (it could have been the name of the other candidate) wasn't the issue. But it was the nature of everything behind it.

(Doc. 38-2 at 2).

         Ms. Foy sent T.S. to the school office, and T.S. met with Mr. Bynum. (Doc. 38-1 at 47-49). Mr. Bynum told T.S. he was written up for causing a commotion in Ms. Foy's classroom. (Doc. 38-1 at 50, 53; Doc. 38-5 at 24-25, 52). Mr. Bynum did not say anything about the presidential candidates themselves. (Doc. 38-1 at 50-51).

         Mr. Bynum called T.S.'s father and explained what T.S. had done and that as punishment, Mr. Bynum planned to paddle T.S. or give him in-school suspension. (Doc. 38-3 at 34-35; Doc. 38-5 at 25-26). T.S.'s father told Mr. Bynum that he did not believe that T.S. should be punished for what happened, but that if Mr. Bynum needed to take action right away, then T.S. could decide which punishment he wanted to receive. (Doc. 38-3 at 36-38; Doc. 38-5 at 27, 54). T.S. chose the paddling because he “felt like it'd be easier just to get it done with.” (Doc. 38-1 at 56-57).

         Mr. Bynum gave T.S. two licks with the paddle. (Doc. 38-1 at 61, 65). T.S. testified that the first lick hurt “[a] good bit, ” but he didn't say anything to Mr. Bynum between the first and second lick. (Doc. 38-1 at 65). T.S. did not cry during the paddling, and when asked during his deposition how hard the licks were, T.S. testified that “it wasn't too bad.” (Doc. 38-1 at 69, 73-74).

         By the time Mr. Bynum dismissed T.S. from the office, first period had ended. (Doc. 38-1 at 66). T.S. reported to his second period class in Ms. Foy's classroom. (Doc. 38-1 at 66; Doc. 38-8 at 4). On his own initiative, T.S. apologized to Ms. Foy for his behavior. (Doc. 38-1 at 67; Doc. 38-8 at 8). According to Ms. Foy, when T.S. returned to class, he did not appear to be in any discomfort and his demeanor and interaction with other students were normal. (Doc. 38-8 at 4). Shortly after Ms. Foy's class began, T.S. was called to the office because his mother had come to the school to check him out for the day. (Doc. 38-1 at 68; Doc. 38-4 at 24-25).

         T.S. was not in pain when he left school. (Doc. 38-1 at 69). He did not have bruises, and he could walk normally. (Doc. 38-1 at 69-70; Doc. 38-3 at 39-40). T.S. did not need medical treatment or counseling. (Doc. 38-1 at 76, 84; Doc. 38-3 at 60).

         T.S. returned to school the next school day. (Doc. 38-1 at 76; Doc. 38-3 at 61). He finished the school year at Childersburg Middle School and did not have any further problems with Mr. Bynum or Ms. Foy. (Doc. 38-1 at 76-80).

         II. ...

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