Can a student sue because their school sucked?


There’s little dispute over the fact that too many of our public schools, particularly in low-income urban areas, are performing far below expectations despite endless amounts of taxpayer money being flushed into them. While some improvements have been seen nationally, some schools continue to fail. But what are the responsibilities of the schools to their students in constitutional terms? That’s the question at the heart of a lawsuit being brought by a relatively recent graduate of one of Detroit’s public schools. He claims that the school was so bad that they completely failed to prepare him for community college and now he wants them held accountable. (NBC News)

After two years of struggling to pass any of his community college classes, Jamarria Hall, 19, knows this for certain: His high school did not prepare him.

The four years he spent at Detroit’s Osborn High School were “a big waste of time,” he said, recalling 11th and 12th grade English classes where students were taught from materials labeled for third or fourth graders, and where long-term substitutes showed movies instead of teaching.

What’s less certain, however, is whether Hall’s education in Detroit’s long-troubled school district was so awful, so insufficient, that it violated his constitutional rights.

I suppose I should consider myself fortunate. While I grew up in a rural farming area, we had a small school that always seemed to at least do the minimum required to keep up with the educational standards of the times. (My graduating class in high school had less than 100 students.) Pretty much everyone without any sort of notable mental impairment could at least read and write at standard high school levels.

It sounds as if Mr. Hall’s experience at Osborn High was very different. If seniors are studying English textbooks marked for second-grade students and he wasn’t in some sort of special needs program, something was seriously amiss. Also, substitute teachers are sometimes noted for not being familiar with the subject matter and “showing movies” to fill up the classroom time, but if they are in place for weeks or months on end the students don’t stand much of a chance.

Looking at Osborn’s academic performance report from 2018, Mr. Hall may indeed have a basis for his claim. While they boast a 91% graduation rate for those making it to the 12th grade, that number might be deceiving. Last year there were 172 students enrolled in 10th grade and 147 enrolled in 11th grade. But there were only 47 students in the senior class. Sounds like a serious dropout rate.

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Also, of the students enrolled, 85% of them were listed as “chronically absent.” Obviously, part of a problem like that might be attributed to the families and the communities, but the ones who do manage to make it into school and stick it out should be given at least a minimally proper education. But their proficiency test results listed in that report are abysmal. More than 50% of the students were rated as “not proficient” (as opposed to partially proficient or fully proficient) in social studies and math. A staggering 93% were rated not proficient in science.

So it seems possible that Jamarria Hall was never really given a chance, despite somehow getting accepted to community college. The first question here is how he managed to graduate and receive a high school diploma if he was reading at a second or third-grade level. Is the school simply giving out passing grades to move everyone along?

The bigger question is whether or not the school violated his constitutional rights. And that’s the basis of the lawsuit. Because if a court determines that schools can be sued for failing to provide an adequate education, that could open the floodgates to lawsuits in every state in the nation. And the real losers in such lawsuits are the members of the community because the money they wind up paying out comes from the taxpayers in each district. Draining money from them for court judgments will simply exacerbate their budget woes.

This just sounds like a tragedy from every angle. Hall went on from high school to enroll in and attend community college, so his situation was not a case of a lack of ambition or effort. He could just as easily have abandoned his educational ambitions after graduation. It does sound as if the school did him a disservice. But is it material for a lawsuit? That’s going to be a tricky case to figure out.

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