A white high school student sued his school district, alleging that he was subject to race-based harassment. The district court dismissed the lawsuit and the student appealed.
The events alleged in the lawsuit took place between the student's eighth and 10th grade years. The student said he first experienced harassment while he was in eighth grade when he wore a hat with the slogan "Make America Great Again." According to the student, there was an almost immediate "attitudinal change by staff and other students from friendly and inviting to cold and hostile." The parents met with the middle school's principal to address concerns that the student was becoming an object of derision because of his political beliefs. Yet, although the principal promised that an action plan was forthcoming, the student was allegedly subject to verbal attacks on almost a daily basis. The parents again met with the principal to express their concerns for their son's safety and the continued absence of the promised action plan; no action plan was put in place after this second meeting.
The alleged harassment escalated throughout the next semester. The student claimed that he experienced "backlash and push back" after he refused to participate in a student walkout protesting gun violence. He alleged that he was "ostracized" for being a Republican, a supporter of former president Donald J. Trump, white and Christian. On one occasion, when the student was listening to music using his ear buds, he said the principal yanked one ear bud out of his ear and stated, "Are you listening to Dixie?" The principal then walked away, laughing to herself.
The student alleged that he experienced more derogatory comments from students and teachers after the principal's remarks. One teacher told the student that she was "getting concerned about how many white people there are." An aide allegedly repeatedly called the student "Whitey" and said, "You need help Whitey?" or "Can't figure this one out Whitey?" when he raised his hand. The student was left in tears following an alleged incident involving his former friend and then-student council president, who created a meme of the student as a hooded Ku Klux Klansman.
The student alleged that the harassment continued into his freshman year. He was insulted and kicked for wearing a Ted Cruz shirt to class. When he asked if he could write a paper on the Second Amendment, he claimed the other students in the class responded by chanting "School Shooter! School Shooter!" Later in the semester, another student "mockingly asked" the student, "Why are you a racist?" Similar incidents occurred throughout the school year, the student said.
At one point, the student said he was attacked while helping a fellow student with a math assignment. The student was using his laptop, which had stickers supporting Donald Trump on its casing. Another student began tracing a swastika on the back of the student that was being helped. The next thing the student remembers is that he was lying on the ground bleeding after being struck multiple times. The student and his family reported this incident to school district police the next day, but no action was taken.
The alleged harassment continued. The student was called a racist, "cussed at," and "flicked off" daily. On one occasion, the student claimed he was talking with some friends at lunch, and a girl stated, "I'm going to kill all Trump supporters." After an investigation, the school district police determined that they would be taking no further action because the student who had made the threat "did not have the means to kill all Trump supporters."
The student never returned to school following the COVID lockdowns and was homeschooled. During this time, the student and his family repeatedly submitted both formal and informal complaints to school administrators recounting the alleged bullying and harassment. School administrators never acted to remedy the bullying and harassment. The student then filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging violations of his First and 14th Amendment rights, alleging that the school district knew that the student was being harassed because of his race and race-based stereotypes, yet failed to keep him safe from harm and failed to provide him an environment that was not hostile.
The court of appeals noted that federal law requires that "[n]o person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." A school district receiving federal funds may be liable for student-on-student harassment if the harassment was "so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school" (a racially hostile environment), and the district had actual knowledge, had "control over the harasser and the environment in which the harassment occurs," and was deliberately indifferent.
The court of appeals determined that the bulk of the student's allegations do not mention race. Those that did mention race failed meet the standard of being "so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that they can be said to have deprived the student of access to educational opportunities or benefits provided by his school."
In reaching this conclusion, the court noted that the incidents occurred within a period spanning over two-and-a-half years and were perpetrated by different actors. Of these incidents, only one was truly severe — where the student was assaulted because he was white. But, according to the court, this alone was not enough to establish harassment, even when considered alongside the few, less severe, race-based allegations.
The student argued that the court should infer that the political animus the student suffered had racial undertones, claiming that an attack on a white person because of his conservative or Republican views is necessarily an attack on him because of his race. But the court disagreed, stating that membership in either group is not limited to those who are not white. Ultimately, the court concluded that discrimination against someone based on political ideology was not the same thing as discrimination against them based on race. The lawsuit was dismissed.