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Tashana Chambers and Lawrence Chambers v. North Rockland Central School District

September 27, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kenneth M. Karas, District Judge:


Tashana Chambers ("Tashana") and Lawrence Chambers (collectively, "Plaintiffs") bring this action against North Rockland Central School District ("the District"), North Rockland Central School District Board of Education ("the Board"), and individual Defendants Dodge R. Watkins ("Watkins"), Brian Monahan ("Monahan"), and Dagoberto Artiles ("Artiles") in their individual and official capacities (collectively, "Defendants"), under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("§ 1983"). Plaintiffs allege violations of Tashana's Fourteenth Amendment due process right to bodily integrity. Plaintiffs also assert state common law claims for negligence, breach of special duty, breach of fiduciary duty (asserted against only Defendants Watkins and Monahan), and loss of services (asserted only by Plaintiff Lawrence Chambers). Defendants move for summary judgment. For the reasons stated herein, Defendants' motion is granted.

I. Background

A. Facts

The relevant facts, which revolve around an ongoing, in-school dispute between several students that eventually culminated in a violent episode at a high school graduation ("the graduation incident"), are taken mainly from the Parties' Local Civil Rule 56.1 Statements. In 2004, Tashana moved with her family from the Bronx, New York, to Rockland County, and enrolled as a student at North Rockland High School ("NRHS"), a public school within the District. (Defs.' Local Rule 56.1 Statement of Facts ("Defs.' 56.1") ¶¶ 6, 8-9.) Early in the 2005-2006 school year (Tashana's senior year), Tashana had a confrontation in school with three girls - Unique Vaughn ("Unique"), Brittney McCloud ("Brittney"), and "Amanda" - which started after Tashana pointed to Amanda and complimented her hairstyle. (Id. ¶¶ 20, 23; Dep. of Tashana Chambers ("Pl.'s Dep.") 31:15-24.)*fn1 Following this initial confrontation, Unique, Brittney, and Amanda continued to bother Tashana, which spurred Tashana to complain to Defendant Artiles, the assistant principal assigned to Tashana's grade. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶¶ 19, 20.) Tashana told Artiles that the girls "were constantly following me around, yelling at me, taunting me, and [] were threatening me," and that they "made my life a hell." (Pl.'s Dep. 30:7-9, 32:6.) The girls would call Tashana a "ferret" and a "bitch," and Tashana, in turn, called the girls "ghetto." (Defs.' 56.1 ¶¶ 21-22; Dep. of Dagoberto Artiles ("Artiles Dep.") 33:24-34:3; Dep. of Diane Robinson ("Robinson Dep.") 50:10-15.) During this conversation, wherein Tashana initially informed Artiles of the issues she was having with these other students, Artiles listened to Tashana, but he did not indicate whether he was going to take any disciplinary action against the girls. (Defs.' 56. ¶¶ 24-25.)

However, Artiles testified that Tashana came to him in October 2005 to "file[] a complaint [about] a group of student[s] calling her names." (Artiles Dep. 30:13-14.) In fact, Artiles specifically recalls that Tashana complained that these other students had called her "small mouth." (Id. 30:16.) After receiving this complaint, Artiles began an investigation and, working with Steven Riback ("Riback"), who was the 11th grade principal at the time, Artiles was able to identify the students at issue. (Id. 31:13-17; Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 42.) Artiles and Riback brought these other students (Unique, Amanda, and a third student whose name Artiles could not recall) to the office and questioned them about why they were "talking about the physical attributes of [Tashana] in a negative way." (Artiles Dep. 31:18-20; see also id. 31:23-32:13.) The students informed Artiles and Riback that Tashana was calling them "ghetto." (Id. 31:20-22.) Artiles and Riback told these students "clearly to stop the name calling, that it was not appropriate, and that [they] were not approving of such behavior." (Id. 34:7-9.)*fn2

Some time during the middle of the school year, Tashana and Unique once again became engaged in a verbal altercation in a school hallway that involved yelling and name-calling, and which was broken up by a teacher, Amanda Gunning ("Gunning"). (Defs.' 56.1 ¶¶ 26, 27.) After this incident, Artiles met with Tashana, Tashana's friend Diane Robinson ("Diane"), Unique, and Amanda, with Unique and Amanda in a separate office from Tashana and Diane. (Id. ¶ 28.) At that meeting, Tashana informed Artiles that the situation that started at the beginning of the year had been ongoing, and that the girls had been constantly following her around and taunting her. (Id. ¶ 29.) Once again, Artiles "basically [] listened" to Tashana at the meeting. (Pl.'s Dep. 39:14-16; Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 30.)

In response to this second complaint, Artiles contacted the parents of Tashana and Diane to advise them of the situation.*fn3 (Artiles Dep. 37:16-38:21.) He also once again involved Riback, who was asked to notify Unique's family. (Artiles Dep. 37:18-22; Riback Dep. 55:11-13.) Both Artiles and Riback recall offering mediation to the students, which was declined. (Artiles Dep. 37:18-22; Riback Dep. 54:17-22.) Artiles and Riback then met with Tashana, Diane, Unique, and Amanda, and delivered the "simple message" to "[s]top calling each other names," and that their failure to do so would result in "consequences." (Artiles Dep. 41:23-42:3; Riback Dep. 55:5-11.)*fn4

The third and final formal discussion between Tashana and Artiles concerning her issues with the girls occurred on the last day of the school year in June 2006. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 35; Pl.'s Dep. 44:21-45:13.)*fn5 On that day, while Tashana and Diane were outside of the cafeteria during lunchtime, a friend of Tashana's told them that Unique and Amanda were planning to attack Tashana. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 36; Pl.'s Dep. 40:10-14.) Tashana, in order to avoid the situation, decided to go to her next class, in which she had a final exam that day. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 38; Pl.'s Dep. 42:22-43:13.) As Tashana was walking to her class, a large crowd was following behind her, but security guards arrived to control the situation, and she continued towards her classroom. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 39; Pl.'s Dep. 43:3-9.)

School personnel, including Artiles and Riback, had independently found out about the plan to attack Tashana, and Artiles and Riback met with Diane at the close of the lunch period in Artiles's office. (Pl.'s Dep. 41:9-22; Defs.' 56.1 ¶¶ 40-41.) Diane explained to Artiles and Riback that she and Tashana had been informed about a plan to attack Tashana while they were outside of the cafeteria. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 42; Robinson Dep. 41:10-14.) Unique and Amanda were then summoned to the office, where they admitted that they were aware of a plan to attack Tashana, and that if that plan was not successful, then Tashana was going to be attacked at graduation. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 43; Robinson Dep. 42:11-16, 44:15-45:7.) Neither Unique nor Amanda revealed the identities of those who were actually going to participate in this attack. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 43.) Artiles also had a meeting with Tashana after she finished her final exam, where she explained the circumstances of the plot to attack her as she understood them - specifically, that it was related to the issues she had been having with the girls since the beginning of the school year, of which Artiles had already been informed. (Defs.' 56 ¶ 45; Pl.'s Dep. 44:11-17.) Following that meeting, Artiles and Riback arranged for Tashana and Diane to be personally escorted to their cars by security personnel. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 44.)

The NRHS graduation ceremony took place on the afternoon of Monday, June 26, 2006. (Pl.'s Dep. 13:10-17.) Following the conclusion of the ceremony, Tashana, Diane, and another friend, Janella Ellis, began walking from the field, where the ceremony had been held, to the main school building to obtain their diplomas. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 60; Pl.'s Dep. 17:11-15, 54:17-55:3.) While Tashana was walking off the field, she saw Unique, Brittney, and Denise McCloud ("Denise") by a gate near the football field. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 61.) As Tashana was walking with her friends, Unique shouted a profanity at Tashana. (Id. ¶ 62.) Tashana continued to walk, but Unique, Brittney, and Denise followed her, yelling at her and taunting her. (Id.; Pl.'s Dep. 20:22-25.) Tashana gave them the middle finger, after which Denise spat on Tashana, and the girls then started fighting. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶¶ 64-65; Pl.'s Dep. 21:2-9, 53:22-54:4.) During the fight, Tashana was punched and kicked in the back and face, and at one point she fell to the ground, where the girls continued to strike her. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 66.) Denise was also hit by Tashana during the fight. (Id. ¶ 67.) The fight, which Tashana estimated lasted between one and five minutes (Pl.'s Dep. 22:11-15), was broken up by a teacher at NRHS, Michael Siuta ("Siuta"). (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 68.)*fn6 Security guard Theresa Herska ("Herska") arrived on the scene and held Tashana against a fence, trying to calm her down, while Unique, Brittney, and Denise ran away. (Id. ¶¶ 69-70.)*fn7 The school resource officer arrived and escorted Tashana and her sister to the school's parking lot, where Tashana called her father. (Id. ¶ 71.) Tashana's father picked her up from that location and took her home, then accompanied Tashana to Nyack Hospital, where she was treated for the injuries she sustained in the altercation. (Id. ¶¶ 72-73.) Tashana did not receive any further medical treatment following her visit to the hospital, nor did she undergo any psychological treatment after the fight. (Id. ¶ 74.) However, Tashana testified that she was very upset after the incident (Pl.'s Dep. 65:2-5), and that she still suffers from emotional distress because of it, (id. 75:8-16).

After the graduation incident, the District suspended both Unique and Denise from school. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 75.) Defendant Monahan, then the Deputy Superintendent of the District, attended graduation and was informed about the altercation by Artiles and Siuta. (Id. ¶ 76.) Monahan first learned of the problems between Tashana and the girls who attacked her after the incident at graduation, during a briefing session with Artiles, Riback, and the head principal of NRHS, Mr. Hand. (Id. ¶ 77; Artiles Dep. 89:25-90:25.) Defendant Watkins, then the Superintendent of the District, left for vacation immediately following graduation and did not learn of the incident until he received papers commencing this lawsuit. (Id. ¶ 78.)

NRHS had a policy of providing its students an Agenda, which contained the "Lessons for Life" and the "Discipline Code," and which detailed the school's policies on conduct and discipline, as well as the rights and responsibilities of students, parents, and staff. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 93; Decl. in Supp. of Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. ("Silverman Decl.") Ex. R.) Teachers were also given copies of these documents and encouraged to review them with their students to ensure that students understood the level of behavior that is expected from them. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 94.) The District's Code of Conduct also set forth certain rights and responsibilities, of both students and staff, that District teachers and staff were expected to enforce and that principals and superintendents were expected to promote. (Id. ¶¶ 95-96.) These policies prohibited, among other things, assault, fighting, and other forms of violence, as well as abusive or disrespectful language and harassing or intimidating others, each of which could result in a variety of disciplinary measures. (Id. ¶¶ 97-98; Silverman Decl. Exs. R, BB.)

For the 2005-2006 school year, the District also had in place a District Wide Safety Plan, which contained, among other things, anti-bullying measures to be implemented in District schools, as well as other mechanisms through which to minimize violent incidents. (Defs. 56.1 ¶¶ 99, 101-05; Silverman Decl. Ex. P, at 13-18.) Plaintiffs claim, however, that these "policies were merely a 'sham' and not enforced or followed." (Pl.'s Resp. to Defs.' Local Rule 56.1 Statement of Facts ("Pl.'s 56.1") ¶¶ 93-106.) Instead, according to Plaintiffs, "Defendants had a custom and practice of affirmatively concealing and failing to acknowledge, discipline or report known acts of violence." (Id.) Defendants provide concrete data, culled from records created by the District, on the number and type of suspensions handed out from the 2003-2004 school year through the 2005-2006 school year (Defs.' 56.1 ¶¶ 107-12), but Plaintiffs claim that this information is fundamentally flawed, given the system of reporting incidents and administering discipline that was in place at NRHS and that Artiles and Riback testified about in their depositions, (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶¶ 107-12).

Specifically, the District is required to provide violent and disruptive incident reports ("VADIRs") to the State Department of Education as part of the Basic Educational Data System ("BEDS") reporting process. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 121; Aff. of Gregory J. Bayduss ("Bayduss Aff.") ¶ 5.) Watkins, the Superintendent of the District during the 2005-2006 school year, and Monahan, who replaced him following Watkins's retirement on June 30, 2006, both certified the accuracy of the information contained within the VADIRs, and both conceded in their depositions that they did not personally review the VADIRs that they certified. (Id. ¶¶ 14, 17, 125-129; Dep. of Dodge R. Watkins ("Watkins Dep.") 24:3-28:2; Dep. of Brian Monahan ("Monahan Dep.") 103:3-17.)

Plaintiffs have submitted a voluminous amount of incident reports detailing various infractions, many of which were violent, and some of which even had associated police reports, that indisputably demonstrate that the VADIR reports that were certified by Watkins and Monahan, from the 2003-2004 to 2005-2006 school years, were inaccurate in that they underreported the number of incidents that occurred at NRHS. (Aff. of Mary E. Brady Marzolla ("Marzolla Aff.") Exs. C-E.)*fn8 In fact, the NRHS security guards who were deposed, when asked to compare the security incident reports that they completed, agreed that many of the incidents that they reported were not reflected in the VADIRs. (See Dep. of Barbara Rudolph ("Rudolph Dep."); Dep. of Theresa Herska ("Herska Dep."); Dep. of Robert Roland ("Roland Dep.").) Riback and, after Riback retired, Artiles, were responsible for compiling the data to be included in the VADIRs. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶¶ 132-33.) Riback described this process, where the assistant principals maintain records of suspensions and other disciplinary actions taken throughout the school year, which records in turn are verified, collected, and used to assemble data for the VADIR. (Id. ¶¶ 134-36; Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 135.) Riback himself kept an index card for each student, and would document any disciplinary actions he meted out on a student's card. Additionally, if a student was suspended, a letter was generated and kept on file, which allowed Riback's secretary to keep track of the suspensions given in Riback's grade and allowed the other assistant principals' secretaries to document and send Riback the number of suspensions that were handed out to the rest of the student body. (Riback Dep. 67:2-10.) In Riback's own words, the incident reports were already integrated into each grade principal's records and had no value in compiling data for the VADIR report because "the incident report doesn't suspend the student." (Id. 75:13-76:5.) Rather, "the VADIR reports were based on the actual disciplinary actions taken, which would be found in the files of the assistant principal." (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 138.) As Plaintiffs point out, this would necessarily mean that a significant number of infractions and violent incidents that occurred at NRHS - evidence of which is detailed in the incident reports contained in several exhibits to Plaintiffs' counsel's affidavit - ...

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