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High court hears arguments in school safety civil rights case

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The Michigan Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday on whether schools can be held legally liable under the state’s civil rights law for failing to protect students from sexual harassment by other students.

The lawsuit claims the Alpena Public Schools district is culpable for allowing a “hostile education environment” by failing to take basic measures such as keeping a girl separated from another student with a history of inappropriately touching her while they were classmates in the fourth and sixth grades.

The case was filed by the girl’s mother, who claims the district violated Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act by failing to take more actions to protect her daughter.

“It’s Alpena Public Schools that caused the environment to be hostile because they didn’t stop the harassment,” said her attorney, Stephanie Arndt.

The girl, referred to as “Jane Doe” because she is minor, deserves protection under Michigan’s expansive civil rights law, said Arndt.

“What we’re advocating for is the protection of Jane Doe, the recognition that her civil rights have been violated and that she is being sexually harassed and that there are steps taken so that she can continue in her school into the future,” she said.

Arndt said the school district should have kept the students separated and could also have performed behavioral assessments and held meetings with the other student’s parents.

Daniel LoBello, the attorney for the school district, said the court should stay away from an expansive view of the civil rights law. He said schools and students should not be viewed in the same light as adults in workplaces, where employers have more options.

“I think the school did what it could to try to address this issue and that’s really all you can ask for,” said following the hearing. “Schools aren’t perfect. They do the best they can.”

And, he said, schools should not be held liable even when their good-faith efforts fall short.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.
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