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Young v. Pleasant Valley School District

January 4, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James M. Munley United States District Judge

(Judge Munley)


Before the court are defendants' motion for summary judgment and plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment. Having been fully briefed and argued, the matters are ripe for disposition.

I. Background

This case arises from plaintiffs' conflicts with the defendant school district over events in the United States history classroom of Defendant Bruce H. Smith at the Pleasant Valley, Pennsylvania high school in the spring of 2007. The material in question included photographs of murder victims, reading assignments that included a sexually explicit memoir written by Smith, and classroom discussions and assignments that addressed sexual matters in a way that the plaintiffs found offensive. At the time of the incidents in question Smith taught twentieth-century United States history at Pleasant Valley High School. (Defendants' Concise Statement of Material Facts (Doc. 88) (hereinafter "Defendants' Statement") at ¶¶ 1-2). The minor daughter of Plaintiffs William and Patricia Young was a student in Smith's classroom during the second semester of her junior year at Pleasant Valley High School. (Id. at ¶ 3). She was sixteen years old. (Plaintiffs' Disputed Statement of Facts (Doc. 103) (hereinafter "Plaintiffs' Statement") at ¶ 3).

In March 2007, the plaintiffs' minor daughter complained to a guidance counselor at her school about the atmosphere and curriculum in Smith's classroom. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 4). She told Donna Yozwiak, the counselor, that she "felt uncomfortable with the material, and she was questioning the graphics that were shown during the class." (Deposition of Donna Yozwiak, Exh. 3 to Defendants' Statement (hereinafter "Yozwiak Dep." at 5). Yozwiak suggested that the student speak with the building principal, Defendant Gress. (Id.). The counselor later called the student for a follow-up appointment. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 6). Yozwiak also spoke with the plaintiffs about their daughter's concerns. (Id. at ¶ 7). She told the parents they should speak with Mr. Gress. (Yozwiak Dep. at 7).

The material about which the plaintiffs' daughter complained included a book written by Smith. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 22). This book was a memoir of Smith's youth, and plaintiffs' daughter was particularly offended by stories in the book that described Smith losing his virginity and interrupting his mother having sex. (Plaintiffs' Statement at ¶ 22). Defendants contend that this book was not presented as required reading, but plaintiffs's daughter testified that Smith urged students to read the book to prepare for required state exams. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 23; Plaintiffs' Statement at ¶ 23). In any case, the plaintiffs' daughter did not read the entire book. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 25). Smith did not obtain approval from the school district before introducing this book. (Id. at ¶ 24). Plaintiffs' daughter also complained about photographs of mutilated murder victims Smith showed the class. (Id. at ¶ 26).

On March 8, 2007, the plaintiffs met with Defendant Gress to discuss their concerns about Smith's teaching. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 9). The plaintiffs complained about the content of Smith's teaching, as well as his behavior in the classroom. (Id.). Defendant Gress promised plaintiffs he would keep their complaint confidential. (Id. at ¶ 10). Gress testified that he had never had another complaint about Smith's teaching. (Id. at ¶ 11). Plaintiffs dispute this claim, but do not cite to any evidence in the record that indicates Gress was aware of previous complaints about Smith. (Plaintiffs' Statement at ¶ 11).*fn1 Plaintiffs, citing to Smith's deposition, also contend that Smith had been showing the material to his classes for five years, and that school officials were aware of his lesson plans. (Id. at ¶ 14).

Gress began an investigation of Smith's teaching after his conversation with the plaintiffs. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 12). He contacted Smith and asked him about the photographs and assigned reading the plaintiffs found offensive. (Id. at ¶ 13). Gress directed Smith to cease using the material. (Id.). He also interviewed other students in Smith's class about the material he used. (Id. at ¶ 14). Gress completed a memorandum reporting on his investigation on March 15, 2007. (Id. at ¶ 19). He provided Defendant Pullo, the Pleasant Valley Superintendent, with this memo. (Id.). Plaintiffs contend that this investigation was inadequate, in part because they had warned Gress that Smith planned to show inappropriate photographs of the Charles Manson and Ed Gien murders to his class. (Plaintiffs' Statement at ¶ 12). Gress did not prevent this display. (Id.). Gress also failed to respond when plaintiffs complained to him after Smith showed these photographs. (Id.). According to the plaintiffs, Gress acted against Smith only after they complained to the local District Attorney's Office. (Id.).

Defendant Pullo called the plaintiffs to discuss their complaints. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 15). The parties dispute the timing of this call; defendants claim Pullo called the day after the plaintiffs made their complaint, while plaintiffs insist that Pullo contacted plaintiffs only after they spoke to the District Attorney's office. (Plaintiffs' Statement at ¶ 15). Pullo, Gress, the plaintiffs and their daughter participated in a conference call on March 20, 2007. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 16; Plaintiffs' Statement at ¶ 16). The participants discussed with the plaintiffs' daughter what occurred in Smith's classroom. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 16).

On March 15, 2007, Defendant Pullo informed Smith that he had been suspended three days with pay. (Id. at ¶ 19). Plaintiffs contend that Smith continued to teach his students using videos during this suspension. (Plaintiffs' Statement at ¶ 19). Pullo suspended Smith without pay for ten days on March 21, 2007. (Id. at ¶ 20). Plaintiffs also insist that Smith taught by video during this second suspension. (Plaintiffs' statement at ¶ 20). Gress told Smith not to speak to any students about the reason for his absence from school. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 21). The parties disagree about whether Smith obeyed this instruction. (See Defendants' Statement at ¶ 21; Plaintiffs' Statement at ¶ 21). Plaintiffs claim that "there is no evidence in the record to prove or disprove whether Smith talked to any students about his suspension. However, it is known that he told his students his absence was because of his mother." (Plaintiffs' Statement at ¶ 21). They point to an e-mail Smith sent on March 25, 2007, which explained that he had to travel to Maryland that week to care for his ailing mother, who doctors suspected needed a lung transplant. (Exh. G to Plaintiffs' Statement). This e-mail does not mention the controversy surrounding Smith's teaching and does not address his suspension. (Id.). Smith also had a substitute teacher show a videotape about Daniel Ellsburg and the consequences of whistleblowing, which plaintiffs contend was an attempt to intimidate their daughter. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 42; Plaintiffs' Statement at ¶ 42).

After Smith returned to teaching, administrators put in a place a plan to monitor his teaching and lesson plans. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 28). He was also required to obtain authorization to use materials in the classroom. (Id.). Plaintiffs dispute the efficacy of this monitoring. (Plaintiffs' Statement at ¶ 28). They point to evidence which indicates that Smith showed pictures of a women naked from the waist up and discussed homosexuality during a lecture about Nazism after returning from his initial suspension. (Id.). After Plaintiff William Young complained, Gress responded by warning Smith that he would receive an unsatisfactory rating if he continued such teaching practices. (Id.). Smith also continued to discuss "sexual topics" in class, such as his college sexual experiences. (Id.). At the end of the year, Smith received an unsatisfactory evaluation. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 29).

On April 23, 2007, plaintiffs complained again to Gress about Smith's teaching, contending that he had shown inappropriate and sexually explicit material. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 44; Plaintiffs' Statement at ¶ 44). Gress called the plaintiffs the next day to suggest they remove their daughter from Smith's class. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 45). Plaintiffs contend that Gress did not acknowledge their concerns, but instead emphasized that Smith was a valuable teacher. (Plaintiffs' Statement at ¶ 45).*fn2 When Gress informed Smith about a second complaint about his teaching regarding Nazism, Smith asked Gress for permission to call the parents and discuss the matter. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 46). Smith nevertheless called the plaintiffs. (Id.). Gress reprimanded Smith after Smith admitted making this call. (Id. at ¶ 56).

Smith's call was prompted by plaintiffs' complaints. The parties disagree about whether Gress told Smith that plaintiffs had complained about his teaching. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 27). Smith denied at his deposition that Gress told him who complained about his teaching. (Smith Dep., Exh. 8 to Defendants' Statement at 32). He claimed that another parent, Kim Dalmas, informed him by e-mail that plaintiffs had complained about him. (Id. at 33). Still, upset by plaintiffs' accusations and by their criticism of his teaching, Smith called them after his initial suspension. (Id. at 35). Smith testified that when Plaintiff William Young asked him if Defendant Gress had instructed him to call, he replied that Gress had. (Id.). Smith testified that he misspoke due to "nervousness," and quickly corrected himself to say he had called "on my own volition." (Id.). William Young, by contrast, testified that Smith called the house and asked to speak to his wife regarding her concerns about his teaching. (William Young Dep. at 25). When Young asked Smith who had told him to call Patricia Young about the issue, Smith hesitated, and then named Gress. (Id.).

Other evidence in the record indicates that plaintiffs complained to several other parents about Smith's teaching, and that some of these parents repeated their complaints to others. (See Defendants' Statement at ¶¶ 30-39). Some of these parents deduced that plaintiffs had made the complaint about Smith. (Id. at ¶ 40).

Plaintiffs contend that public knowledge about their complaints led to intimidation and harassment. The plaintiffs' minor daughter claims she was "too scared to go back" to school after the local newspaper, the Pocono Record, published a story about the filing of her lawsuit. (Id. at 49). Plaintiffs contend that school administrators did nothing to stop this harassing treatment. (Plaintiffs' Statement at ¶ 49). They insist that administrators offered a public commendation for students who held a pep rally in support of Smith. (Id.). Threats and name calling eventually led plaintiffs to move out of the school district. (Id.). On May 13, 2007, before the family moved, William Young requested homebound instruction for his daughter. (Id. at ¶ 50).

The Pleasant Valley school district provided teachers with yearly training on sexual harassment and maintaining a proper work environment. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 51). The district also provided training on retaliation at personnel meetings, legal seminars hosted by attorneys and in-service training. (Dep. of Anthony Fadule, Exh. 9 to Defendants' Motion (Doc. 92) at 71). Gress attended a monthly leadership council meeting at which he sometimes received training in sexual harassment. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 53). The district also had a written sexual harassment policy. (Id. at ¶ 54). Plaintiffs argue that this policy was ineffective, as Smith taught topics which the policy should have prohibited. (Plaintiffs' Statement at ¶ 54).

On May 9, 2005, plaintiffs filed a complaint in this court alleging violations of their First Amendment rights in the school district's reaction to their complaints. (See Doc. 1). Plaintiffs filed this complaint anonymously. Defendants responded with a motion to dismiss that complaint because plaintiffs had not provided their real names and had not sought the court's permission to file the complaint anonymously. (See Doc. 5). Plaintiffs then filed a motion for permission to proceed anonymously due to safety concerns (See Doc. 9). In addition to responding to that motion, defendants filed a motion to stay discovery pending the outcome of our decision on those motions. (See Docs. 11-12). On August 1, 2007, the court issued a memorandum and order denying plaintiff's motion to proceed anonymously and the defendants' motion to stay discovery. (See Doc. 16). The court also ordered the plaintiff to file an amended complaint that provided the plaintiffs' real names.

The plaintiffs filed their amended complaint on August 10, 2007. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint. (See Doc. 18). After briefing and oral argument, the court granted the motion in part and denied it in part. (See Doc. 33). The court also directed the plaintiffs to file a second amended complaint, which they did on February 18, 2008 (Doc. 35). On August 9, 2008, plaintiffs filed a third amended complaint, which added now-ripe claims under Pennsylvania law. (Doc. 54). Discovery continued and the parties eventually filed motions for summary judgment. The parties then briefed those motions and the court held argument, bringing the case to its present posture.

II. Jurisdiction

As this case is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. ("The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States."). The court has supplemental jurisdiction over the plaintiff's state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

III. Legal Standard

Granting summary judgment is proper if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Knabe v. Boury, 114 F.3d 407, 410 n.4 (3d Cir. 1997) (citing FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c)). "[T]his standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the ...

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