Rejected school resource officer applicant sues, alleges… | TCTA
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Rejected school resource officer applicant sues, alleges racial discrimination

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A rejected school resource officer applicant filed a lawsuit, alleging that a school district failed to hire him based on his race.

The district issued a job posting to fill two available school resource officer positions. One of the applicants was Black. According to his application, he earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice in 1988. He worked for the city police department as a patrol officer until 1992, when he was hired as the district's first school resource officer. In 1994, he left the district to pursue a career with the Texas Department of Public Safety, where he served as lieutenant at the time of his application. In addition to his employment history, he shared in his application that he was a little league baseball board member, a park board member, the youth basketball president, and spoke "polite" Spanish.

Another applicant, who was Hispanic and fluent in Spanish, also applied. That candidate was a high school graduate who earned an associate's degree in criminal justice in 2003 and completed police academy training in 2004. He worked as a construction estimator from 2004 to 2017, while serving as a reserve officer with the county sheriff's office from 2004 to 2007 and the city police department from 2007 to 2014. He performed additional work as a private investigator beginning in 2012. At the time of his application, the Hispanic applicant owned and operated a private investigation company.

A panel of eight district employees interviewed six applicants. During the interviews, the panel members used evaluation forms containing preprinted interview questions with space to write comments and rate responses. All panel members fully completed the forms except one, who wrote comments for most of the items but failed to rate many items. After the forms were tendered, panel members were asked to rank the applicants. Based on this process, the committee recommended that the district hire two candidates, including the Hispanic applicant and another applicant who was Black.

The rejected Black applicant filed a race discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which dismissed the case because the district selected a different Black applicant. The rejected applicant appealed to district court and ultimately to the court of appeals, accusing the hired applicants of applying in an attempt to "take his job." He argued, among other things, that one of the committee members and the successful Hispanic applicant were photographed "partying in Mexico" less than a month before the interview panel was assembled, that the interview panel was stacked with the Hispanic applicant's friends, that the panel had been instructed to select a Spanish-speaking applicant, that the panel ignored his qualifications and experience, and that the panel made it known that it would not hire two Black applicants.

The district denied that it rejected the applicant due to race and stated that although the Hispanic applicant was not as experienced as the rejected Black applicant, several members of the panel noted that he was very likeable and seemed like he would work well with kids. They found him to be very personable, and believed that hiring him would be in the best interest of the district due to his likely ability to build good relationships with students. The district argued that personality and demeanor are important aspects of school-based policing because officers frequently interact with students and their families. Overall, the school environment is very different than most traditional law enforcement agencies, and having extensive law enforcement experience does not necessarily mean that a candidate is the best fit for a school district police department.

The court of appeals noted that an employer commits an unlawful employment practice if, because of race, the employer "fails or refuses to hire an individual, discharges an individual, or discriminates in any other manner against an individual in connection with compensation or the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment." Generally, "an unlawful employment practice is established when the complainant demonstrates that race . . . was a motivating factor for an employment practice, even if other factors also motivated the practice."

The court found that the rejected Black applicant possessed more law enforcement experience than the successful Hispanic applicant, but noted that experience was only one component of qualification for the position. According to the job posting, the position required a valid peace officer license and basic related knowledge and training, but full-time law enforcement experience was "preferred," not required. Both applicants served multiple years with law enforcement agencies. 

In addition to the license and training requirements, the position required "strong . . . communication, and interpersonal skills." Several panel members found the successful Hispanic applicant "very likeable" and believed he would work well with the district's students. The rejected Black applicant did not dispute that the successful Hispanic applicant's personality was better suited to the position.

In light of the evidence presented, the court of appeals determined that, although the rejected Black applicant might have presented sufficient evidence to suggest that the district was motivated by cronyism in its hiring practices, he failed to present sufficient evidence of racial discrimination. In doing so, it noted that the law "does not protect an employee against unfair employment decisions; instead, it protects against employment decisions based upon discriminatory animus." The judgment of the district court was affirmed and the lawsuit was dismissed.