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Estate of Barnwell v. Watson

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

January 26, 2018

The Estate of Chandler J. Barnwell, by and through his parents, Michael and Anna Barnwell, Individually and upon behalf of his heirs Plaintiffs - Appellants
v.
Linda Watson, Dr., EdD, Superintendent of the School Board of the Little Rock Independent School District, in her official capacity Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: April 6, 2017

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Little Rock

          Before COLLOTON and BENTON, Circuit Judges, and GERRARD, [1] District Judge.

          GERRARD, District Judge.

         After their son tragically committed suicide, the plaintiffs, Michael and Anna Barnwell, sued the superintendent of their son's school district, alleging that the school had discriminated against their son on the basis of disability by failing to adequately protect him from being bullied by other students. But the district court[2]found no evidence to support the Barnwells' claim, and granted the superintendent's motion for summary judgment. We affirm the district court's judgment.

         I.

         The Barnwells' son, Chandler, was 16 years old at the time of his death. He had been diagnosed over the course of his adolescence with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; depression and anxiety disorders; oppositional defiant disorder; and most pertinently Asperger's disorder, a condition on the autism spectrum characterized by impaired social skills. Children with Asperger's disorder lack awareness of social boundaries, among other things, and as a result can unwittingly engage in inappropriate behavior. This can include staring at others and making inappropriate or hurtful remarks. In Chandler's case, it also produced speech patterns and mannerisms that could be perceived by others as unusual or effeminate.

         Chandler had behavioral issues, at school and home, during grade school and middle school. Chandler completed kindergarten and his first 5 years of grade school at the Heritage Christian School, and at age 12 started the sixth grade at St. Theresa Catholic School. That November, he was hospitalized for a week of inpatient evaluation and treatment after he reported to St. Theresa's principal that he was hearing voices in his head. But the record does not reflect a diagnosis of schizophrenia-Chandler had also reported other things, such as alleged abuse, that were not substantiated. In his mother's words, he "embellished on the truth a lot."

         After Chandler's discharge from treatment, he was enrolled in the Little Rock Independent School District (the District), at Pulaski Heights Middle School, to complete sixth grade. Chandler's time at Pulaski Heights was unhappy-according to Mrs. Barnwell, he was bullied by other students, and was eventually suspended for the end of the school year after saying he wanted to hit the students who were harassing him. For the 2007-08 school year-Chandler's seventh grade year-he was re-enrolled at Heritage Christian School. But he was expelled from Heritage Christian after he set a fire in a trash can while smoking in the bathroom. So, the Barnwells home-schooled Chandler from October 2007 to August 2009.

         During that time, Chandler was again hospitalized following a putative suicide attempt in December 2008. Chandler's grandmother had summoned authorities when Chandler cut at his wrists and drank hydrogen peroxide, although hospital records reflect that Chandler's efforts consisted of "scratches" on his wrist and ingestion of a "minimal" amount of hydrogen peroxide. Chandler told medical staff at the hospital that a voice had told him to kill himself. But the family's therapist, Ruth Fissel, said she believed Chandler's actions were more an impulsive bid for attention than a serious attempt at self-harm. There is no evidence that representatives of the District were ever made aware of this incident.

         Chandler wanted to go back to school for the 2009-10 school year, so he was enrolled back in the District at Forest Heights Middle School. Chandler was 15 years old by then, and was starting the eighth grade.[3] In an August 2009 conference at Forest Heights, Mrs. Barnwell did express her concern about Chandler being bullied, because of his experience during sixth grade at Pulaski Heights. But Chandler had a relatively good year at Forest Heights. He was suspended for a week in December 2009 for smoking marijuana in the bathroom, but according to Mrs. Barnwell, he did well in school and made friends. While he was not bullied at school, however, there were ongoing conflicts with other children in his neighborhood. And Chandler made some other poor decisions, such as taking medications from his mother and grandmother.

         Chandler stayed in the District and started ninth grade at Parkview Arts Science Magnet High School in August 2010. Chandler's educational management team, which included Mrs. Barnwell and school resource personnel, met on September 9. The primary issue addressed at that meeting was Chandler's difficulty getting to class on time-he had already accumulated several tardies because, according to Chandler, other students were impeding him in the halls. On at least one occasion, his books were knocked from his hands. The educational management team recommended that Chandler be dismissed from his classes 5 minutes early to allow him to pass through the halls, although it was another month before Parkview's principal, Dexter Booth, approved that recommendation. Mrs. Barnwell said that Chandler was permitted to leave class early because of her concern that being stuck in the hall between classes "would set [Chandler] up to be bullied."

         Chandler was involved in an altercation with another student in class on October 7. Although accounts-including Chandler's own accounts-differ on some details, the version of events Chandler related to his mother was representative. According to Chandler, a girl in the class called him "fruity" and rudely accused him of coughing on her. He objected to her rudeness, she called him a "faggot, " and he retorted that she was a "nappy-headed bitch." She drew back her hand as if to strike him, but he struck her first with an open hand. Both students served a one-day suspension, and there was no further trouble between them.

         Chandler continued to have trouble in his neighborhood, however, including at the bus stop in the morning. Eventually, he stopped riding the bus and his parents transported him to and from school. Chandler's difficulties at the bus stop were not reported to the District.

         As part of his individualized education plan, Chandler was included in a "pragmatics group, " a social skills group for students with varying disabilities intended to help students develop their pragmatic social skills under the guidance of a school resource educator. Chandler's educational needs were re-evaluated in November, including an IQ test, achievement testing, adaptive behavior testing, and speech and language testing. The evaluation was completed by Jody Cerrato, the speech therapist who taught Chandler's social skills group. As pertinent, on the evaluation form, Cerrato checked an item on a list of "Observed Behaviors" that read: "Is bullied by others." Cerrato ...


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