TEXAS — A federal appeals court ruled in June that aTexas school district and its superintendent violated a student’s rights whenthey took him out of his high school for reciting a poem that they saidthreatened a female classmate. The U.S. District Court ruled that theprocess used by Fort Worth Independent School District to reassign the DunbarHigh School senior, Terry Carter, to a different high school had violated hisFourteenth Amendment right to due process. In its April decision, the courtstated that it had not considered the appropriateness of the punishment imposedon Carter, “but only the process used to arrive at that decision.”Theschool district appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the FifthCircuit. On June 17, The court determined that the appeal was moot becauseCarter had already graduated from Dunbar Carter filed suit against theschool district after he was punished for presenting his rap poem in his theaterarts class on Jan. 30. A student in the class, Allison Robinson, complained thatshe felt threatened by the poem. The poem mentioned Robinson and made referenceto a gun and pulling a trigger. According to the district courtdecision, Carter was immediately sent to the school’s vice principal and thenwas told on Feb. 7 that he would be sent to another high school for 90 schooldays. The hearing officer lessened the punishment to 10 days after a schoolpsychologist determined that Carter posed a low risk of violence.WhileCarter was serving the 10-day sentence at Metro Opportunity School,Superintendent Thomas Tocco had two conferences with Robinson and her parentsand conducted an investigation into Carter’s record. The court stated that Toccomade inquiries and obtained statements from Carter’s classmates and teachers.Tocco failed to notify either Carter or his lawyer of theinvestigation.On Feb. 20, Tocco changed his earlier ruling andpermanently prohibited Carter from returning to Dunbar. The districtcourt ruled that Tocco’s consideration of additional evidence was in violationof school district policy. Procedural rights of students are set forth in thestudent conduct code, including the right to have a punishment “determined basedsolely on the facts developed at the initial conference before the hearingofficer,” according to the court decision.The court granted Carter apermanent injunction in order to “uphold his procedural due process rights andthe right to continue his education at his home school.” On April 23,Carter was allowed to return to Dunbar. He was allowed to graduate with hisclass and participate in senior activities, such as the senior prom.”Wefelt good that the judge ruled that his due process rights were violated,” saidBobbie Edmonds, Carter’s lawyer. “We are confident that the school district willchange the policies and start looking a little more carefully at student rightsand the procedures that they have implemented in the disciplinaryprocess.”The district court determined that Carter was entitled to a”reasonable attorney’s fee” but left it up to the two parties to decide on anamount. The Fifth Circuit Court also ruled that Carter also will receive a”reasonable attorney’s fee” for the appeal process.
Murphy v. Fort Worth Independent School District, 258 F.Supp.2d 569 (N.D.Tex. 2003)
Murphy v. Fort Worth Independent School District, 2003 WL21396868 C.A.5 (Tex.) 2003