Decision allows case to proceed against the Frederick Gunn School for expelling student who cursed at his football coach after benching and berating him during final game
LITCHFIELD, Conn., February 16, 2022 — In a ruling exposing the lack of due process at one of the country’s elite private schools, Connecticut Judge Ann Lynch has ruled that courts’ traditional deference to the educational decisions of schools does not apply to the expulsion of a student for disciplinary violations.
The ruling, issued on February 8th, has nationwide significance as schools around the country demand that courts defer to all of their rulings, academic and non-academic, on grounds that educational institutions are uniquely qualified to make such decisions about students.
The case was brought by Noah Greenberg, a former student at the Frederick Gunn School, previously known as The Gunnery, which changed its name after being sued by Greenberg. The school was founded in 1850 as a private boarding school in Washington, Connecticut. Greenberg sued after he was expelled for cursing at his football coach who had benched him after Greenberg suggested a change of plays.
According to Greenberg, he used profanity only after his coach – in violation of school policy – cursed at him over three seasons with some of the same language. This culminated on the sidelines of the last game of the 2019 season when Greenberg was a senior and co-captain of the team. As the school and the coach knew, Greenberg had been diagnosed with learning disabilities, yet the coach singled him out with insults, calling him “stupid,” “dumb,” and a “moron.”
Greenberg argued that the Gunnery breached its contractual obligation to protect him from harassment and discrimination based on a known learning disability. He also argued that the school had been negligent and even reckless in ignoring its own rules. For example, use of profanity ordinarily counts as only one “disciplinary point” under the school’s formal system – a very minor infraction comparable to failing to clean one’s room.
The plaintiff presented facts – based on the football coach’s statements and the school’s handling of Greenberg’s disciplinary case – showing that the Gunnery violated promises and even covered up the coach’s abuse.
The Gunnery argued that it was protected from liability by the doctrine of “educational deference.” In Connecticut, as in many states, courts afford a high degree of deference to schools’ educational decision-making, since the precise details of how to educate students are within schools’ unique expertise. But the judge rejected this argument, holding that “educational deference” did not extend to non-academic, disciplinary decisions. Rather, “disciplinary dismissals fall squarely within an exception to educational deference.”
The court’s rejection of this argument is an important victory for student rights. The court also refused to throw out charges that open the door to potential punitive damages against the school.
“As schools increasingly claim the right to micromanage students’ life outside the classroom, often capriciously, courts are saying, ‘No,’” said Michael Thad Allen, the plaintiff’s attorney. “Greenberg brought seven separate counts against the school and the judge has said that all seven survive, and he will get his day in court on all of them.”