On September 19, 2019, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling that restricting a student’s mother’s visitation rights did not violate Section 504 or the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). In an unpublished opinion, the Court ruled that the school district’s restrictions were not in retaliation for the parent’s advocacy on behalf of her child. (Camfield v. Board of Trustees of Redondo Beach Unified School District, (2019) 17-56072).
In March 2015 the Redondo Beach Unified School District sent the mother (“Parent”) of a fifth grader with cerebral palsy a letter requiring her to seek permission from the campus principal at least 24-hours prior to any on-campus visit. The letter detailed interactions between Parent and school officials, primarily regarding Parent’s displeasure with the assignment of a specific aide.
Parent used vulgar language, called the assigned instructional assistants repeatedly on their cell phones, and insulted one of the instructional assistants. Her behavior was so disruptive that one instructional assistant would hide inside a locked classroom until Parent left to avoid “unpleasant interactions.” As a result, Parent claimed that the District’s letter and the subsequent restrictions from campus were in retaliation for her advocacy on behalf of her disabled child, and therefore violated Section 504 and the ADA.
To establish a claim for unlawful retaliation, a parent needs to show: 1) the parent engaged in a protected activity; 2) the district or local education agency (“LEA”) had knowledge of that activity; 3) the district/LEA took adverse action against the parent; and 4) the protected activity was the cause of the adverse action. While the Court seemingly found that Parent had provided evidence for the first three factors, the Court ruled that the district had legitimate, nonretaliatory reasons for requiring a 24-hour notice from Parent.
Specifically, the Court noted that Parent’s conduct was undisputed. Thus, such undisputed conduct could legitimately be the basis for restricting her access to campus, not her advocacy for her child. Moreover, the Court noted that the 24-hour notice requirement did not interfere with Parent’s ability to advocate on her child’s behalf. The Court noted that “even after [the restrictions were] issued, [Parent] was not denied permission to attend any event involving [the student] or to meet with any representative of the District concerning [his] education.”
Dealing with difficult parents can unfortunately be a part of providing services to students with disabilities. As this case illustrates, an LEA can restrict the access of particularly difficult parents under certain circumstances. This case indicates that in order to defend against a claim of retaliation for restricting access to campus, the parent’s conduct needs to be disruptive, the conduct must be largely undisputed and documented, and that his/her access not be so limited that it prevents him/her from advocating on the child’s behalf.