When a school district finds itself in the difficult position of having to bar an individual from school district property and/or limit the individual’s communications with staff members to ensure the safety of students and staff, a harassment restraining order may be an option. In a previous legal update, we addressed a school district’s broad authority to limit access to school district property. In many situations, a school district can address inappropriate conduct by an individual towards the school district or on school district property by placing limitations upon the individual’s access to school district property and/or by establishing a communication plan. However, it may be necessary to pursue a harassment restraining order when an individual fails to comply with such restrictions or fails to follow the communication plan. This is especially true when the individual escalates his or her conduct or if the conduct of the individual presents a significant danger to students and/or staff.
Wis. Stat. § 813.125 addresses harassment restraining orders and injunctions. Under the statute, a judge or circuit court commissioner may issue a temporary restraining order requiring the respondent to avoid certain contact, such as:
- avoiding contact or causing any person other than a party’s attorney or a law enforcement officer to contact the petitioner without the petitioner’s written consent;
- ceasing or avoiding the harassment of another person;
- avoiding the petitioner’s residence, or any premises temporarily occupied by the petitioner or both;
- or any combination of these remedies requested in the petition.
The petition must allege the following elements: (1) the name of the person who is the alleged victim; (2) the name of the respondent; (3) that the respondent has engaged in harassment with intent to harass or intimidate the petitioner; and (4) if the petitioner knows of any other court proceeding in which the petitioner is a person affected by a court order or judgment that includes provisions regarding contact with the respondent. It can often be helpful to attach supporting documentation to the petition, including affidavits from individuals who have directly observed the individual’s inappropriate conduct.
With regard to the third element, the term “harassment” is defined to include: “Engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts which harass or intimidate another person, and which serve no legitimate purpose.” Wis. Stat. § 813.125(1)(am)4.b. In order to issue the temporary restraining order, the judge or circuit court commissioner must find “reasonable grounds to believe that the respondent has engaged in harassment with intent to harass or intimidate the petitioner.”
If a judge or circuit court commissioner issues a temporary restraining order based upon the petition, the Court must hold a hearing on issuance of an injunction within fourteen (14) days after the temporary restraining order is issued, unless an exception applies. After the hearing, the Court may issue an injunction barring the respondent from engaging in the conduct specified above, provided that the individual received proper notice and the judge or circuit court commissioner finds reasonable grounds to believe that the respondent has engaged in harassment with intent to harass or intimidate the petitioner.
Generally, an injunction issued by a judge or circuit court commissioner would be effective for four (4) years. However, it is possible to obtain an injunction for a longer term in specific circumstances.
Courts have held that public entities such as school districts can obtain harassment restraining orders and injunctions under the statute. The statute “protects institutions as well as people.” Bd. of Regents-UW Sys. v. Decker, 2014 WI 68, 355 Wis. 2d 800, 850 N.W.2d 112. In addition, Courts have reasoned that the term “person,” as used in the statute, includes “all partnerships, associations and bodies politic or corporate.” Village of Tigerton v. Minniecheske, 211 Wis. 2d 777, 783, 565 N.W.2d 586, 589 (Ct. App. 1997); Wis. Stat. § 990.01(26).
A common issue that arises in these types of hearings is whether the individual had a legitimate purpose when he or she engaged in the conduct at issue. Often, individuals will point to some educational interest. However, an individual cannot absolve his or her otherwise harassing conduct by labeling it as something that could be viewed as legitimate, such as a communication or action related to their child’s education, or by pointing to an excerpt of an otherwise harassing communication. The Wisconsin Supreme Court holds that if one’s purpose is “even in part to harass,” his or her conduct may be enjoined under Wis. Stat. § 813.125. Bd. of Regents-UW Sys., 2014 WI 68, ¶38. Further, if one has a legitimate purpose and an illegitimate purpose, the legitimate purpose does not automatically protect the individual’s conduct from being enjoined. Id.
Another common issue that arises in these types of hearings is proving the respondent’s intent. Courts have held that intent can be shown through circumstantial evidence and inference. More specifically, one’s intent may be “inferred from the acts and statements of the person, in view of the surrounding circumstances.” In re Paternity of C.A.S., 185 Wis. 2d 468, 489, 518 N.W.2d 285, 292 (Ct. App. 1994).
If a school district has been unable to stop harassing or intimidating conduct by an individual, or if an individual presents a significant danger to a school district, the school district may wish to pursue a harassment restraining order. In these types of cases, it is often helpful to present the Court with the applicable law and to explain the requested parameters of the harassment restraining order. For instance, it is often necessary for a school district to continue communicating with a student’s parents. The school district can explain the requested parameters of the order and also point out other avenues provided through existing policies for a parent to bring concerns to the school district.
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or your Renning, Lewis & Lacy attorney.