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Fairfax County School Board v. S.C.

Supreme Court of Virginia

May 30, 2019

FAIRFAX COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD
v.
S.C., BY HER NEXT FRIEND, FAREN COLE

          FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF FAIRFAX COUNTY David Bernhard, Judge.

          PRESENT: Lemons, C.J., Mims, McClanahan, Powell, Kelsey, and McCullough, JJ., and Russell, S.J.

          OPINION

          D. ARTHUR KELSEY JUSTICE.

         The Fairfax County School Board disciplined S.C., a high-school student, for nonconsensual, sexual touching of three students at school. S.C. appealed to the circuit court and sought a judicial vacatur of the School Board's decision. Finding that the School Board's decision was arbitrary in violation of S.C.'s due process rights, the circuit court dismissed the disciplinary proceedings against S.C. with prejudice. The School Board appeals, arguing that the circuit court misapplied the governing legal standards and misinterpreted the factual record of the disciplinary proceedings. We agree and reverse.

         I.

         Code § 22.1-87 authorizes petitions for judicial review of school board actions. The circuit court sits as an appellate tribunal when hearing these petitions and may consider the school board's orders, the hearing transcript, "and any other evidence found relevant to the issues on appeal by the court." Code § 22.1-87. In this case, the parties did not offer any evidence outside of the administrative record, and thus, our review, as well as the circuit court's, is limited to that record.[1] Because we, like the circuit court, independently review the record from the perspective of an appellate court, we give no deference to the circuit court's recitation of the facts or to its interpretation of the inferences arising from the underlying record.[2]

         A.

         In 2016, SC began her freshman year at a high school in Fairfax County. At that time, one of S.C.'s parents received a copy of the school's policy entitled "Student Rights and Responsibilities: A Guide for Families" (the "SR&R"). 2 J.A. at 318. This policy addressed "Acts for Which Students May Be Disciplined." Id. at 382. Those acts included "any behavior incompatible with a K-12 educational environment and good citizenship." Id. at 383. The policy then identified specific "examples of prohibited conduct" after twice clarifying that these were mere examples. Id.

         In pertinent part, the SR&R stated that "[a]cts for which students may be disciplined include, but are not limited to . . . [a]ssault." Id. Under the category of "[a]ssault," a list of various prohibited acts appeared, including "[i]mproper touching of another person (whether or not consensual)" as well as "[s]exual assault or battery upon any person." Id. at 384; see id. at 355 (listing "Improper Touching and/or Sexual Activity" as an "Offense and/or Violation"). The school tests the students at the beginning of each school year to measure their understanding of the SR&R. In September 2016, SC answered "T" for "True" to a test question asking whether "[a] student who touches another student intentionally in his or her private areas will face disciplinary action and may be reported to the police." Id. at 319-21.

         On February 22, 2017, three female students reported to a school counselor that S.C. had touched them in a sexually inappropriate manner. In detailed, written statements and in oral statements to the assistant principal, the students alleged that the sexual touching was intentional on S.C.'s part and nonconsensual on their part. One of three students stated that she was "being sexually harassed" and that she felt "a bit unsafe" and "uncomfortable" seeing S.C. in the hallways at school. Id. at 294, 299. A second student felt not only "uncomfortable" but also "anxious" around S.C. Id. at 301. The third student was "extremely nervous" seeing S.C. at school because "if she gets mad it's bad. She has others gang up on people." Id. at 295, 300. Even though S.C. "knows not to confront me," this student worried, "if she confronts others they don't have [the] capability to defend themselves verbally or physically that I can." Id. at 300.

         The school administration responded promptly. On February 23, the assistant principal informed S.C. of the "suspected infraction" and explained "the facts known to school personnel," id. at 542, who had interviewed the three alleged victims. See id. at 288. On that same day, SC provided the school with a written statement in response to the allegations. In it, SC admitted to touching students while at school but claimed that the touching was consensual, adding that "[t]hese people are really good and close friends of mine." Id. at 293.

         Later on that day, the principal suspended S.C. for 10 days. The principal also referred the matter to the division superintendent's hearing officer for a disciplinary hearing to determine "whether [S.C.] should be long-term suspended, reassigned to an alternative educational setting, or recommended to the School Board for expulsion." Id. at 541; see also id. at 546.[3] The referral letter stated that the referral was "necessary because [S.C.] was involved in a sexual assault against another student." Id. at 541. On the same day, the principal informed S.C.'s parents - both orally and in writing - that the reason for the suspension and referral was that S.C. had "engaged in the sexual battery of other students while on school grounds." Id. at 542.

         The principal's letter also informed S.C. that, upon request, SC could obtain "a redacted copy of the discipline packet that is submitted in support of the disciplinary referral." Id. at 543. That packet included written victim-impact statements by the accusing students. See R. at 757, 763. Before the disciplinary hearing, SC and her parents obtained the "discipline packet," 2 J.A. at 331-32, which informed them of the allegations that would be presented at the hearing.

         B.

         The Office of the Division Superintendent scheduled the hearing for March 7 (Day 8 of S.C.'s 10-day suspension) but rescheduled it at the request of S.C.'s father for March 9 (Day 10 of the 10-day suspension).[4] Two hearing officers representing the division superintendent presided over S.C.'s disciplinary hearing. S.C. appeared at the hearing represented by legal counsel. A court reporter transcribed the proceedings. Before the hearing began, SC acknowledged that she understood that she was accused of "[s]exual assault against other students." Id. at 424.

         Early during the hearing, S.C.'s counsel sought to establish that S.C.'s conduct was not "sexual battery," a "criminal charge" with elements defined by statute. Id. at 450-52. "I'll be happy to submit the statute," S.C.'s counsel declared, "so that we can all get on the same page as to what battery and sexual battery is because that's what's been alleged here." Id. at 452. Counsel returned to this theme later in her appeal to the School Board by adding that "Section 18.2-67.4 of the Code of Virginia defines 'sexual battery'" as sexual abuse that is "against the will of the complaining witness, by force, threat, intimidation, or ruse." 2 J.A. at 564.

         In her testimony at the disciplinary hearing, SC stated that the allegations against her were only "somewhat accurate." Id. at 486. Among her qualifications, SC indicated that she had touched one student's vagina once, not twice as the student had alleged, and that she had done this only after the student had agreed to the touching by saying, "yes, I would let anyone touch me there." Id. In response to her counsel's immediate request for clarification, SC testified that she had only touched the student's "inner thigh." Id. at 487. S.C. also testified that one of the other accusers had asked to be touched "under the shirt" and that while doing so S.C. "accidentally" had touched the student's breast. See id.

         S.C. did not equivocate, however, regarding the prohibition in the school's disciplinary policy. When asked whether "school rules allow[ed] [her] to touch anyone in a sexual manner," S.C. admitted, "No." Id. at 490-91. She then admitted, without qualification, that she had violated this disciplinary policy:

[Hearing Officer]: Did you touch someone in a sexual manner on school grounds?
[S.C.'s Counsel]: When you say a sexual manner, what do you mean?
[Hearing Officer]: Breasts, vaginal area, buttocks.
[S.C.]: Yes.

Id. at 491. After this admission, S.C.'s counsel requested that the hearing officers limit S.C.'s discipline to a reassignment to another regular public school. Counsel also conceded that S.C.'s conduct, even under S.C.'s version of events, could constitute a violation of the SR&R policy:

I read the Rules and Responsibilities packet, and even though the definition of assault and what is sexual battery is different than what is in the statute, it specifically talks about touching that is consensual or nonconsensual if it's improper. So despite [S.C.'s] intentions and what she said today, there's a very good possibility that this does fall within a disciplinary realm.

Id. at 506.

         The hearing officers found that S.C. had "committed serious offenses in violation of School Board policy by committing multiple acts of offensive touching of three fellow students." Id. at 554. The acts involved "various incidents of sexual touching" that "were not consensual." Id. The hearing officers made clear that they did "not believe [S.C.'s] denials." Id. Instead, they found that S.C.'s actions had been "willful, deliberate, and far outside the bounds of acceptable student conduct." Id.

         The hearing officers added that they "were unable to determine . . . whether [S.C.'s] inappropriate touching of students rose to the level of sexual battery." Id. The hearing officers' inability to make this determination was irrelevant, however, because they had already found that "'improper touching of another person (whether or not consensual)' is a violation of SR&R," id. The discipline for S.C. included reassignment to an alternative learning center, probationary conditions for a minimum of one year, and reassignment to a different, regular high school at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school ...


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