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Doe v. The Blake School

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

May 7, 2018

JOHN DOE, Plaintiff,
v.
THE BLAKE SCHOOL, Defendant.

          Robert Bennett and Marc Betinsky, GASKINS, BENNETT & BIRRELL, LLP, and Beau McGraw, MCGRAW LAW FIRM, PA, for plaintiff.

          Charles Knapp and Kathlyn Noecker, FAEGRE BAKER DANIELS LLP, for defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION

          JOHN R. TUNHEIM, CHIEF JUDGE

         Plaintiff John Doe, a high school senior, was placed on indefinite suspension by Defendant The Blake School (“Blake”) for his behavior at a February 10, 2018, school dance. Doe admits that he came to the dance drunk, danced aggressively, and ran twice from police, but he denies allegations that he groped one freshman girl and sexually harassed a second. Doe alleges that Blake's investigation into these allegations and its disciplinary process were negligent and violated Title IX, Title VI, and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”), and moves for a preliminary injunction. Because Doe has not yet shown a fair chance of prevailing on his claims or that he will be irreparably harmed absent an injunction, the Court will deny Doe's motion.

         BACKGROUND

         1. THE PARTIES

         John Doe[1] is a mixed-race student attending The Blake School. (Compl. ¶ 2, Apr. 2, 2018, Docket No. 1.) He has worked as a camp counselor at Blake since he was 11, and has been involved in coaching youth sports. (Declaration of John Doe (“Doe Decl.”) ¶ 4, Apr. 11, 2018, Docket No. 14.) Doe, a senior, has attended Blake since kindergarten, and has received significant financial aid during the course of his enrollment. (Decl. of Joseph Ruggiero (“Ruggiero Decl.”) ¶¶ 6-7, Apr. 20, 2018, Docket No. 27.) Doe believes that he will not be able to afford to attend college without a scholarship. (Doe Decl. ¶ 8.) In part through his involvement in sports at Blake, Doe earned a full Division I athletic scholarship. (Id. ¶ 6).

         The Blake School is a private prekindergarten through 12th grade school in Hopkins with roughly 1, 375 students. (Compl. ¶¶ 3, 7.) Because Blake receives some federal funding, it is subject to Title VI and Title IX. (See Id. ¶¶ 8, 15, 108.) Blake stresses its commitment to pluralism, noting that 30% of its students identify as students of color and 22% of its students receive financial aid. (Ruggiero Decl. ¶ 5.) According to Doe, however, only 1.7% of Blake's upper school students are African-American males. (Decl. of Robert Bennett (“Bennett Decl.”) ¶ 3, Apr. 23, 2018, Docket No. 33.)

         II. THE DANCE

         On Saturday, February 10, 2018, Doe and 20 to 25 other students drank at a classmate's house and rode a bus to a school dance at Blake.[2] (Compl. ¶¶ 42-44.) The dance was staffed by two Blake administrators, a Hopkins police officer, and adult volunteers. (Decl. of Mike Canfield (“Canfield Decl.”) ¶¶ 4, 7, Apr. 20, 2018, Docket No. 22.) Students entered through a single point of access, where adults checked to see if they had brought prohibited items or appeared intoxicated. (Id. ¶ 5.) Students were required to arrive between 8:30 and 9:00 p.m. (Id. ¶ 6.) Doe and the other students arrived at 8:45 p.m., took off their shoes, and danced. (Compl. ¶¶ 45-46.)

         According to Doe, he “danced by jumping up and down, grinding, and twerking for approximately an hour with no objection from Blake staff.” (Id. ¶ 47.) Doe says that, at one point, a girl pressed up behind him and he danced with her for a few moments before she walked away; then, as he went to get a drink of water, her friend told him that the way he had danced was inappropriate. (Id. ¶¶ 49-51.) Doe ignored her and went to a photo booth with his friends. (Id. ¶ 52.)

         According to Blake, several freshmen girls approached freshman class dean Jeanette Vance to report that Doe had grabbed one of them (“Student A”) inappropriately and that they believed that he had been drinking. (Decl. of Jeanette Vance (“Vance Decl.”) ¶ 4, Apr. 20, 2018, Docket No. 28.) Specifically, Student A, who is African-American, alleged to Vance that Doe approached her, told her that he liked that she knew the words to the song that was playing, grabbed her by the hips and pulled her close, moved his hands down her hips, and then “moved his hands all the way down her crotch and grabbed her vagina area.” (Id. ¶¶ 6-8.) The student and her friends moved to the other side of the dance floor; it is alleged that Doe followed them and again grabbed Student A by the crotch. (Id. ¶ 8.) It was further alleged that the student's two friends told Doe to stop and pushed him away from Student A, he put his arms around one of them (“Student B”), began grinding against her from behind, and held her even as she tried to push him away. (Id. ¶¶ 9, 15-16.) Eventually Doe moved away; the girls then left the dance floor and reported him to Vance. (Id.)

         These divergent narratives reunify when Doe was confronted by sophomore class dean Mike Canfield, who took him into a classroom to meet Vance and Officer Leland Coleman. (Compl. ¶ 53; Canfield Decl. ¶¶ 4, 9-10.) Canfield told Doe that one or more students had complained about unwelcome touching, [3] that faculty suspected he was drinking, and that he would have to take a breathalyzer test. (Compl. ¶¶ 54-55; Canfield Decl. ¶¶ 11, 14; Vance Decl. ¶ 13.) According to Blake, Doe denied that he would put his scholarship at risk by drinking and stated his view that he was being singled out because he was black. (Canfield Decl. ¶¶ 12-13; Vance Decl. ¶¶ 11-13.) Doe ran from the classroom without his shoes or coat, and, with Canfield and Coleman after him, was quickly apprehended. (Compl. ¶¶ 56-57; Canfield Decl. ¶¶ 15-16; Vance Decl. ¶ 13.) Doe voluntarily got into a police car and was taken back to the school. (Compl. ¶ 58; Canfield Decl. ¶ 16.) When Coleman opened the door to give him a breath test, Doe again ran. (Compl. ¶¶ 59-60; Canfield Decl. ¶ 17.) He surrendered when an officer pointed a weapon at him and ordered him to stop. (Compl. ¶ 60; Canfield Decl. ¶ 17.) Doe was eventually released to his mother's custody. (Compl. ¶ 61.)

         Doe's mother spoke with senior class dean Shawn Reid twice that evening. According to Doe, Reid told her that Doe was believed to have groped a girl at the dance but that she should not worry about it, because Doe “wasn't doing anything different than anyone else.” (Id. ¶¶ 62-66.) According to Reid, he told Doe's mother that he was suspected of drinking, “that he was accused of grabbing the crotch of one or more girls, ” and that he had run from police. (Decl. of Shawn Reid (“Reid Decl.”) ¶ 8, Apr. 20, 2018, Docket No. 25.) According to Doe, an officer told Doe's mother that law enforcement was only interested in Doe's drinking and flight from police and was not investigating the groping allegation. (Compl. ¶ 68.)

         III. THE ADJUDICATION

         Blake's handbook sets out a policy for investigating and adjudicating harassment, including allegations of sexual misconduct. (Compl. ¶ 26, Ex. 1 at 43-45, Apr. 2, 2018, Docket No. 1-1.) Specifically, it defines sexual harassment to include “[u]nwelcome touching in any form” and “[p]hysical assault, ” and warns that sexual harassment “may result in warnings, suspensions or immediate dismissal of a student.” (Id. at 44.) The handbook describes Blake's commitment to a full review of complaints, a “thorough and fair” investigation, and “compassionate and confidential” proceedings.[4] (Id.) Harassment is considered a “major infraction, ” consequences for which “usually include suspension or expulsion.” (Id. at 42.)

         The handbook also outlines Blake's disciplinary procedures for major infractions. (Id. at 42-43.) It states that students will be informed of the alleged infractions and asked to present an explanation in a meeting with their grade dean. (Id. at 42.) The grade dean will consult with the upper school director to determine how discipline will be handled; from there, the process is at the discretion of the administration. (Id.) Final authority for discipline rests with the upper school director unless expulsion is being considered, in which case it rests with the head of school. (Id. at 43.) A Community Judiciary Board (“CJB”) may be tasked with making recommendations. (Id. at 42.) The CJB includes eight students elected from grades 10 to 12, two faculty members, and upper school assistant director Paul Menge. (Decl. of Paul Menge (“Menge Decl.”) ¶ 3, Apr. 20, 2018, Docket No. 23.) This year, three of the eight students are students of color; two identify as African-American. (Id. ¶ 4.)

         On Monday, February 12, Reid - Doe's grade dean - told Doe that he would be going before the CJB because he was accused of drinking alcohol and dancing inappropriately. (Compl. ¶ 73.) Doe alleges that his mother asked Reid about the latter accusation, and Reid told her that the main thing Doe should be concerned about was drinking and running from police. (Id. ¶ 74.) Reid told Doe to prepare a statement about his actions and advised him on its content. (Id. ¶¶ 71, 75.) According to Reid, in at least one of his conversations with Doe and his mother, Reid made clear that Doe was accused of grabbing girls in the crotch. (Reid Decl. ¶ 12.) Reid says that Doe consistently denied that he grabbed any girls that way. (Id. ¶ 14.)

         Also on Monday, a junior student (“Student D”) approached a teacher and, with some reluctance, reported that Doe had grabbed her by the hips and moved his hands toward her crotch, followed her and a friend across the gym, and repeated his actions. (Decl. of Anne Rubin ¶¶ 3-5, Apr. 20, 2018, Docket No. 26.) Student D said that she was not aware of the other complaints. (Id. ¶ 7.) This complaint did not go to the CJB.[5]

         On Tuesday, February 13, Doe says that he was told for the first time that he was facing accusations of sexual assault from two freshman girls. (Compl. ¶¶ 80-82.) Doe was shown the girls' statements. (Id. ¶¶ 82-83.) Doe was taken before the CJB “within minutes” of being shown the statements. (Id. ¶ 84.) The CJB first heard from upper school director Joseph Ruggiero, who said that the CJB's recommendation would be advisory. (Menge Decl. ¶¶ 6-7.) Next it heard from Reid, who described his observations at the dance and his discussions with Doe afterward, and from Vance, who presented “information from her investigation.”[6] (Id. ¶ 8.) Finally, it heard from Doe, who read his prepared statement. (Id. ¶ 9.) Doe's statement focused on drinking and running from police; however, Doe acknowledged that he had been “jostling people more than necessary, ” that he was told both by a student and by Blake staff that he was dancing inappropriately, and that he “may have needed to be removed from the dance floor.”[7](Compl. ¶¶ 76-77; Menge Decl. ¶ 9, Ex. 1, Apr. 20, 2018, Docket No. 23-1.)

         The CJB met to deliberate on both February 13 and February 14. (Menge Decl. ¶ 10.) CJB members agreed that “Doe's conduct at the dance constituted sexual harassment and/or sexual assault under School policies” and that Doe should be punished both for those actions and for his choice to drink. (Id. ¶ 11.) The CJB was evenly divided as to its recommended punishment, with half of its members believing Doe should be expelled and half believing he should be required to finish his coursework off campus.[8] (Id. ¶ 13.) “After receiving the CJB recommendations, Blake administrators met and deliberated at length regarding the appropriate consequences for Doe's actions.” (Reid Decl. ¶ 15.) In an email to the Blake Community, Head of School Anne Stavney stated that she made the ultimate decision based on a consensus of administrators. (Decl. of Robert Bennett ¶ 4, Ex. 1 (“Stavney Email”) at 3, Apr. 23, 2018, Docket No. 33-1.)

         IV. THE DISCIPLINE

         On Friday, February 16, Ruggiero and Reid called Doe and his mother to school and informed them that Doe was to be suspended indefinitely, barred from campus, and prohibited from playing sports. (Compl. ¶¶ 88-89; Reid Decl. ¶ 15; Ruggiero Decl. ¶ 14.) However, Doe alleges that the administrators told his mother that “the school would not put anything in [Doe's permanent file about the sexual allegations . . . as long as he left the school quietly.” (Compl. ¶ 90.) Blake has not squarely denied the allegation; although Stavney's email stated broadly that “[t]he student who perpetrated the assault was never told that the disciplinary action would be left out of his record, ” Doe's allegation is focused on reference to sexual misconduct. (Stavney Email at 3.)

         On Sunday, February 18, Doe received a letter from Reid describing Doe's infractions (including “[s]exual harassment of fellow students”) and his punishment. (Compl. ¶ 91, Ex. 2 at 1, Apr. 2, 2018, Docket No. 1-2.) The letter noted that Doe would continue his coursework remotely so that he could earn his diploma on schedule and that Blake would provide a math tutor and college counseling as necessary. (Id.) Doe's mother also received a copy of Doe's permanent file, which stated that the reason for the discipline was “sexual” in nature. (Compl. ¶ 93.)

         Believing that this result would cost him his athletic scholarship, (Doe Decl. ¶¶ 6-8), Doe retained counsel and threatened legal action in the course of asking the school to reconsider, (see Compl. ¶ 94, Ex. 3, Apr. 2, 2018, Docket No. 1-3.) Blake did reconsider, but concluded that its prior investigation was sufficient and its second look only reaffirmed its conclusions. (Compl. ¶ 95, Ex. 4 at 1, Apr. 2, 2018, Docket No. 1-4.) Stavney wrote to Doe's mother that Doe had admitted that he had been told his dancing was inappropriate, that he had denied to the CJB that he had grabbed girls' crotches, and that Blake's published disciplinary process was followed. (Id. at 3-4.) Nonetheless, Stavney offered for Blake to assist Doe in gaining access to other athletic opportunities, including a post-graduate year in a high-level lacrosse program. (Id. at 6.) Through counsel, Blake also offered to “consider [Doe's] input” regarding Blake's communication with the college that admitted him and to “consult and advise [Doe] regarding the content of [his own] communication to put things in the most positive light with an objective of retaining his admission and scholarship.” (Id. at 1-2.) Doe's offer of admission and scholarship have since been irreversibly revoked. (Bennett Decl. ¶ 2.)

         Doe has obtained statements from four witnesses who he says “would have supported [his] contention that he did not commit the acts he is alleged to have committed” if he was given more time to assemble evidence for the hearing. (Compl. ¶¶ 98-102.) Two of the witnesses allege that the school treated allegations against white male students much differently. (Id. ¶¶ 98-99.) Blake denies this in part, stating that “not all of the information . . . about other alleged student ...


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