HUDSON, Mich. –
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th District has voted 2-1 to send a lawsuit against the Hudson School District back to the Circuit court for further proceedings. The case, Patterson v. Hudson Public Schools, et al, was tossed out when the Circuit Court ruled in a summary disposition that the case could not stand. The Appeals court found the lower court had erred in its ruling and sent it back saying there were serious factual issues at hand that needed to be heard.
Hudson is a small community about 40 miles south of Jackson.
The case revolves around the alleged harassment and bullying of a student identified only as DP in court records. Starting in the sixth grade, DP was subjected to verbal taunts, physical taunts, and vandalism. The attacks culminated in an alleged sexual assault in the school’s locker room following a junior varisty football game. Among the taunts DP was allegedly subjected to include queer, Mr. Clean (allegedly because he did not have pubic hair) and attacks on his size.
Safe school activists hailed the Appeals Court ruling, and said it sent a clear message to school districts in Michigan.
“I think it does send a message on their (the Appeals Court) behalf that schools do have a responsibility to be looking on bullying on our students,” said Kevin Epling. Epling’s son, Matt, committed suicide as a result of bullying his parents allege he suffered in East Lansing. The safe schools legislation has been named in Matt’s honor, Matt’s Law.
The activists have been trying for years to pass Matt’s Law, which would mandate bulllying policies in all Michigan schools, but have been hampered in the state Senate. In the lame duck session in December, Senate Majority Leader Alan Cropsey (R-Dewitt) killed the bills passed almost two years prior by the state house. The bills never received a hearing in the Senate. The safe schools legislation has been attacked by opponents like Cropsey and American Family Association of Michigan’s Gary Glenn as supporting a “homosexual agenda.” The attacks are leveled because the bills enumerate, or list, the various classes which are protected or are to be protected and they include gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation.
“No one says that these people (students subjected to bullying) are L, B, G or T. But the slurs are about their sexual orientation,” said Bernadette Brown, director of policy at Triangle Foundation in Detroit. “We have been having difficulty getting those words included. You can be harassed because of a perception.”
Both Epling and Brown say they welcome the ruling, and say it is likely to play a role as they and other members of the Safe Schools Coalition work to introduce and pass Matt’s Law this legislative session.
But Brown is also troubled by some of the findings in the ruling.
“One thing I found difficult was that finding the resource room was successful. We are punishing the victim. I find it unnerving because the victim is being removed from the environment and not the harassers. You still have the harassers who are still in the dominant education community,” Brown said. The ruling states that at one point, the victim was removed from the school by placing him a resource room. “It sends a message – It’s OK (to bully). They will just remove the victim. If what the harassers want the victim removed, they win. Even if the student is moderately protected, nothing changes. We can sort of protect them, and avoid liability, but nothing has changed. It does nothing for inclusion.”
Brown was also disturbed by the final outcome of the alleged sexual assault charge. The perpetrator, identified only as LT, was originally charged with assault to commit a felony and Second Degree Criminal Sexual Conduct. He eventually plead guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct.
“How does assault with intent to commit a felony and CSC 2 and gets bumped down to a misconduct or disorderly conduct?” Brown asked.
Epling said that if Matt’s Law had been in effect, much of the harassment and bullying might have been prevented in this case.
“If Matt’s law was in effect they would have had to have had a policy in place,” Epling said. “Having that policy can make a very large difference to have the parents to go in and work with the school. It is that community wide aspect that is lacking.”