On September 27, 2022, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals issued a new decision interpreting a school district’s authority to ban individuals from school district property.  Klosterman v. Sch. Dist. of Omro, 2022 WL 4491604.  In its decision, the court held that a school board’s broad statutory authority included the authority to ban a former employee from school district property indefinitely.

Facts

The teacher began teaching in the School District of Omro (the “District”) as a middle-school teacher in 2005.  For most of the teacher’s employment with the District, many students and colleagues considered him a beloved teacher, mentor, and coach.  However, the District’s School Resource Officer (“SRO”) and staff members raised concerns about the teacher’s behavior towards male students during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years.

In the Spring of 2018, hallway security footage captured the teacher helping a male student to his feet, placing his arms around the student’s upper body.  In the footage, the teacher’s face was very close to the male student’s face.  It appeared the teacher kissed the male student.  However, the footage was not definitive.

In the Fall, the SRO observed the teacher interacting with a group of boys at a home football game.  The SRO observed the teacher place his hands on the students’ shoulders and arms.  Later, the SRO observed the teacher standing with one male student at a distance from the crowd.  The SRO further observed the teacher and the student were standing face-to-face very close to one another and holding hands.  The SRO reported his observations to the District’s administration but acknowledged that he did not observe any criminal activity.

The SRO subsequently viewed video footage from the football game and observed other interactions between the teacher and male students.  The video footage showed the teacher hugging two male students from behind, hugging another student in a “full body” hug, and lifting another student during a hug.

At the school board’s direction, the SRO met with the teacher to discuss his conduct.  The teacher responded that he would not change his behavior toward students.  The teacher explained that if he changed his behavior, students would notice and question if something was wrong with the previous interactions.

After the conversation between the SRO and the teacher, other staff members reported concerning interactions between the teacher and male students.  The District investigated the teacher’s conduct by interviewing several students and their parents.  None of the interviewed students reported feeling uncomfortable about their interactions with the teacher.  At least one parent expressed concern about the amount of time the teacher spent with students, but parents were otherwise supportive of the teacher and his relationship with their children.

The District also consulted a former law enforcement officer with significant experience investigating sensitive crimes and sexual offenders.  The law enforcement officer did not interview the teacher or students but opined that the teacher’s conduct “mirrored” the grooming behavior of offenders she had investigated.  Despite the former law enforcement officer’s opinion, the SRO closed his investigation because none of the students or their parents alleged criminal violations.

The District placed the teacher on administrative leave pending the outcome of its investigation.  During the leave, the District’s administration directed the teacher not to enter District grounds or buildings unless given express permission.  The teacher resigned approximately two (2) months after being placed on administrative leave.

The teacher requested the District to rescind the prohibition against his presence on District property multiple times.  After each request, the school board reviewed the background and documentation gathered during the investigation and denied the teacher’s request to lift the prohibition.

The teacher filed suit in circuit court seeking a declaratory judgment that his ban from District property was unlawful.  The circuit court granted summary judgment for the District, reasoning that the District had the legal authority to ban individuals from school property, had a rational basis for banning the teacher, and did not erroneously exercise its discretion in doing so.  The teacher appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals.

Holding

The Court of Appeals upheld the summary judgment ruling and held the District acted lawfully by banning the teacher.  The court reasoned that school boards possess broad discretionary powers under Wisconsin Statutes to manage school district affairs.

Citing Section 120.12, Wisconsin Statutes, the court noted that the possession, care, control, and management of school district property and affairs is an enumerated duty of the school board.  The court also noted that Section 120.13, Wisconsin Statutes, grants school boards the power to “do all things reasonable to promote the cause of education.”  Finally, the court noted that Section 118.001, Wisconsin Statutes, mandates that the duties and powers of schools be construed broadly.  Based on the school board’s statutory authority, the court concluded that school boards may ban individuals whose presence it has determined needlessly exposes students to potentially dangerous behavior.

Having concluded that the school board possessed the authority to ban individuals from school district property, the court considered whether the District’s school board erroneously exercised its wide discretion by banning the teacher.  On this point, the court concluded the District acted reasonably to protect students by banning the teacher from District property.  The court reasoned that the teacher’s history of physical contact with middle-school boys and his refusal to cease such contact justified the school board’s decision.  The court further reasoned that the school board was justified to act proactively in banning the teacher rather than waiting for harm to occur before imposing the ban.

A dissenting opinion raised a significant issue with the majority opinion’s summary of the evidence.  The dissenting judge pointed out that despite multiple investigations, not a single student indicated discomfort over their interactions with the teacher.  Further, several parents stated they were entirely comfortable with the teacher’s behavior and that some families had friendly relationships with the teacher outside of school.

The dissenting opinion further criticized the majority for failing to analyze how completely banning the teacher from District property, even when students are not present, is reasonable to promote the cause of education under Section 120.13, Wisconsin Statutes.  To the contrary, the dissenting judge pointed to evidence in the record suggesting that the District’s administration was unhappy with the teacher’s opposition to changes in curriculum and that the superintendent did not like the teacher’s personality.  The dissenting judge reasoned that such evidence established a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the school board’s actions were reasonable, which would preclude granting summary judgment.

Finally, the dissenting opinion criticized the court for ignoring the teacher’s constitutional claims as undeveloped.  The dissenting judge argued that the court failed its duty to uphold the constitution by not ordering supplemental briefing or oral arguments to develop the parties’ position on the constitutional arguments more completely.

Conclusion

The court’s decision in Klosterman clearly bolsters a school board’s authority to ban individuals from school district property to protect students.  However, each situation is unique and may require certain exceptions to accommodate an individual’s rights.  For example, the court did not consider how a ban might impact parental rights to participate in educational decision-making or to access certain protected activities such as voting.  School district officials should consult legal counsel when considering whether to ban an individual from school property.

For questions regarding this article, please contact the author,

or your Renning, Lewis & Lacy attorney.

Chad P. Wade

Chad P. Wade

 cwade@law-rll.com | 833-654-1176