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Cleveland v. Blount County School Dist. 00050

January 28, 2008

JOHN CLEVELAND, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
BLOUNT COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT 00050, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thomas A. Varlan United States District Judge

(VARLAN/GUYTON)

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

Plaintiffs John Cleveland ("Mr. Cleveland"), Connie Cleveland ("Ms. Cleveland"), and Pat Johnson ("Ms. Johnson") (hereinafter collectively referred to as "Plaintiffs") filed the present civil action, individually and as next friends, against Blount County School District 00050 ("School District") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of the United States Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Plaintiffs also claim various violations of Tennessee state law by the School District. The School District filed a motion for summary judgment [Doc. 37], which is ripe for determination.

The Court has carefully considered the parties' briefs, supporting materials [Docs. 37, 39, 44, 45, 46, 59, 60], and oral arguments in light of the entire record and controlling law. For the reasons set forth herein, the School District's motion for summary judgment [Doc. 37] will be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

I. Relevant Facts

Plaintiffs are African-American residents of Blount County, Tennessee. [Doc. 1 at ¶ 7.] Mr. Cleveland and Ms. Cleveland are the parents of minor, Brittney Cleveland ("Brittney"). [Id.]. Ms. Johnson is the custodian of minors, Markiya Morrison ("Markiya") and Vincent Morrison ("Vincent"). [Id. at 9.]*fn1 During the relevant period, Brittney, Markiya, and Vincent were students at William Blount High School ("WBHS"). [Id. at ¶ 25.]

The School District is a governmental agency duly authorized under the statutes of the State of Tennessee to provide public education through its various schools. [Id. at ¶ 11.]

During the 2004-2005 school year, African-American and Caucasian students asked Christy Martin ("Dr. Martin"), principal of WBHS during the relevant time, about forming a "Step Team." [Doc. 37-4 at ¶ 2.] The Step Team performed at a basketball game, and Dr. Martin claims that she received complaints about suggestive moves during the performance. [Id. at ¶ 3.] According to Dr. Martin, the Step Team revised its routine for their next performance, but the Step Team was eventually disbanded after allegedly performing suggestive dance moves at a later performance and for other disciplinary problems. [Id. at ¶ 3-5.] Mr. Cleveland avers that the Step Team did not engage in suggestive moves. [Doc. 59-2 at ¶ 7.] Though Dr. Martin claims there was an attempt to meet with Step Team members regarding the disbandment of the Step Team, no meeting occurred. [Doc. 37-4 at 7.] Mr. Cleveland claims that Dr. Martin refused to reschedule the meeting. [Doc. 59-2 at ¶ 9.]

Also during the 2004-2005 school year, WBHS experienced a period of heightened racial tension. [Doc. 37-2 at ¶ 1.] Incidents included rumors about guns found at WBHS, fights, and racial graffiti, including a "hit list" with names of African-American students. [Id. at ¶¶ 4, 6].

On April 6, 2005, the Blount County Sheriff's Office informed school officials that a WBHS student being held at the Blount County Juvenile Detention Center revealed that someone at WBHS planned to pull the fire alarm and kill African-American students during the evacuation. [Id. at ¶ 7.] After school officials met with the Blount County Sheriff and an FBI agent, Blount County Sheriff's Deputies secured WBHS's premises and swept through the school for weapons. [Id.] While deputies secured WBHS's campus, the Blount County Sheriff announced a $500 reward, later increased to $1000, for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the "hit list." [Id. at ¶ 9.] The Blount County Sheriff's Office remained present at WBHS until Spring Break. [Id. at ¶ 10.]

On April 27, 2005, WBHS school officials met with several WBHS parents, including Mr. Cleveland, Ms. Cleveland, and Ms. Johnson. The parents presented school officials with a list of recommendations. [Doc. 37-2 at 8]. School officials sent Ms. Johnson a letter responding to the list of recommendations. [Doc. 37-2 at 9-10.] After these events, Alvin Hord ("Mr. Hord"), the Director of Schools for Blount County School System, determined that a dress code should be uniformly enforced to ban the wearing of racially divisive symbols, including the Confederate flag that was linked to some racial graffiti. On July 6, 2005, Ms. Johnson and Mr. Cleveland met with Mr. Hord and Dr. Martin. On August 4, 2005, the Plaintiffs filed the present civil action. [Doc. 1.]

II. Analysis

A. Standard of Review

Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c), summary judgment is proper if "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." The moving party bears the burden of establishing that there is no genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330 n.2 (1986). The court must view the facts and all inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Burchett v. Kiefer, 310 F.3d 937, 942 (6th Cir. 2002). To establish a genuine issue as to the existence of a particular element, the non-moving party must point to evidence in the record upon which a reasonable jury could find in its favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The genuine issue must also be material; that is, it must involve facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id.

The judge's function at the point of summary judgment is limited to determining whether sufficient evidence has been presented to make the issue of fact a proper jury question. Id. at 249. The judge does not weigh the evidence, judge the credibility of witnesses, nor determine the truth of the matter. Id. Thus, "[t]he inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is the need for trial - whether, in other words, there are any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party." Id. at 250.

B. §1983 Claims

42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides that "[e]very person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State . . . , subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law." To prevail on a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must prove (1) deprivation of a right protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States (2) by person acting under color of state law. Boykin v. Van Buren Twp., 479 F.3d 444, 451 (6th Cir. 2007) (citing Tahfs v. Proctor, 316 F.3d 584, 590 (6th Cir. 2003)). Municipalities and other local government units are included among those "persons" to whom § 1983 applies. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978). However, "a local government may not be sued under § 1983 for an injury inflicted solely by its employees or agents. Instead, it is when execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury that the government as an entity is responsible under § 1983." Id. at 694. Pursuant to § 1983, Plaintiffs make claims under the First Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, and Title VI.

1. First Amendment Claims

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably to assemble, and ...


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