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Goodall v. Worcester School Committee Maureen Biniend

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 25, 2019

JOSILYN GOODALL, Individually and as next friend, as nest friend of A.S., a minor child, Plaintiff,
v.
WORCESTER SCHOOL COMMITTEE MAUREEN BINIENDA, in her official capacity as Superintendent of Worcester Public Schools, LINDA SPEARS, in her official capacity as Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, SUZANNE CARDONA, in her individual capacity, ADRIENNA COONAN, in her individual capacity, and JANE DOE, in her individual capacity. Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

          TIMOTHY S. HILLMAN DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Background

         Jane Goodall, individually (“Goodall”) and as next friend of her minor child, A.S., (“A.S” and together with Goodall, “Plaintiffs”) have brought an action against the Worcester School Committee (“School Committee”), Maureen Binienda, in her official capacity as Superintendent of Worcester Public Schools (“Superintendent” and, together with the School Committee, the “Worcester School Defendants”), Linda Spears, in her official capacity as Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (“Commissioner”), Suzanne Cardona, in her individual capacity (“Cardona”), Adrienne Coonan, in her individual capacity (“Coonan” and, together with the Commissioner, and Cardona, the “DFC Defendants”) and Jane Doe, in her individual capacity (“Doe”) alleging claims under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for (1) implementation of policies interfering with a parent’s fundamental right to direct the education of their children and/or the fundamental rights of parents and children to family integrity, familial privacy, and intimate association; and/or (2) illegal search and seizure. Plaintiffs also seek a declaration and judgment of rights pursuant to the Massachusetts Declaratory Judgment Act, Mass.Gen.L. ch. 231A, §1 (“Chapter 231A”) regarding a parent’s right to decide to withdraw her child from school, and a declaration that such parent’s conduct does not constitute “neglect.” Plaintiffs request monetary damages, and injunctive relief.

         This Memorandum of Decision and Order addresses Commonwealth’s Motion To Dismiss Counts 3, 4 and 6 From the Complaint (Docket No. 8); Defendant Worcester School Committee and Superintendent Maureen Binienda’s Motion To Dismiss the First and Fifth Causes of Action From Plaintiff’s [sic] Complaint (Docket No. 10); and Plaintiffs’ Motion To Strike Defendant Worcester School Committee’s Motion To Dismiss and Supporting Exhibits (Docket No. 15). For the reasons set for the below, the DCF Defendants’ and Worcester School Defendants’ motions to dismiss are granted, in part, and denied, in part and Plaintiffs’ motion to strike, is denied.

         Standard of Review Governing Motions to Dismiss

         To overcome a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a complaint must allege sufficient facts “to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 667, 129 S.Ct. 1949 (2009); Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 546, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (2007). The plausibility of a claim is evaluated in a two-step process. Manning v. Boston Med. Ctr. Corp., 725 F.3d 34, 43 (1st Cir. 2013). First, the court must separate the complaint’s factual allegations, which must be accepted as true, from its conclusory legal allegations, which are not entitled to the presumption of truth. A.G. ex rel. Maddox v. Elsevier, Inc., 732 F.3d 77, 80 (1st Cir. 2013); Manning, 725 F.3d at 43. Second, the court must accept the remaining factual allegations as true and decide if, drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff’s favor, they are sufficient to show an entitlement to relief. Manning, 725 F.3d at 43. The court draws on judicial experience and common sense in evaluating a complaint, but may not disregard factual allegations even if it seems that actual proof of any particular fact is improbable. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 667, 129 S.Ct. 1949; Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955. A motion to dismiss must focus not on whether the plaintiff will ultimately prevail, but whether he or she is entitled to offer evidence to support the claims. Mitchell v. Mass. Dep’t of Corr., 190 F.Supp.2d 204, 208 (D. Mass. 2002) (quoting Scheur v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236, 94 S.Ct. 1683 (1974)).

         Facts

         The Motion To Strike

Before making findings of fact, I must address Plaintiffs’ motion to strike the Worcester School Defendants’ factual assertions made in support of their motion to dismiss. In some instances, the Worcester School Defendants have expanded on Plaintiffs’ factual assertions while in others, they have controverted them. As record support, they cite to the declaration of Maura Mahoney (“Mahoney’), Manager of Social Emotional Learning for the Child Studies Department of the Worcester Public Schools and the following exhibits attached thereto: (Ex. A) a copy of the School Committee’s Homeschool Policy; (Ex. B) a copy of a January 10, 2018 email from Goodall to the Superintendent outlining Goodall’s homeschooling plan for A.S.; (Ex. C) a copy of A.S’s attendance record for the 2017-2018 school year; (Ex. D) a copy of Mahoney’s January 16, 2018, response to Goodall’s January 10, 2018 email; (Ex. E) a copy of a DCF report of child abuse/neglect regarding A.S.; (Ex F) a Failure To Cause School Attendance Affidavit regarding A.S.; (Ex. G) a copy of the complaint filed against Goodall in the Worcester Superior Court by the Worcester Public Schools; (Ex H) a copy of an official, completed application to homeschool A.S. for the 2018 academic year filed in April 2018; (Ex. I) a copy of an official, completed application to homeschool A.S. for the 2018-2019 academic year; and (Ex. J) a copy of the Superintendent’s letter notifying Goodall that the application to homeschool A.S. for the 2018-2019 school year had been approved. See Declaration of Maura Mahoney, Defs. Worcester School Comm. And Superintendent Maureen Binienda’s Mem. Of L. in Supp. Of Mot. To Dism. (Docket No. 11), at Ex. 1 (“Mahoney Decl.”). Plaintiffs have filed a motion to strike all the exhibits on the grounds that they are outside of the pleading and therefore, cannot be considered unless the Court converts the motion to one for summary judgment. The motion to strike is denied, but for the reasons set forth below, I will not consider specific exhibits or the information contained therein.

         In ruling on whether the plaintiff has stated an actionable claim, the inquiring court must consider only the complaint and documents annexed to it; the court cannot consider affidavits and miscellaneous documents proffered by parties, unless such other materials are fairly incorporated within the complaint or are susceptible to judicial notice. Rodi v. S. New England Sch. Of Law, 389 F.3d 5, 12 (1st Cir. 2004). Contrary to Plaintiffs’ assertion, many of the exhibits included by the Worcester School Defendants contain facts and other information which was repeatedly referenced in the Complaint and therefore, can be said to be “fairly incorporated” therein. These include the following exhibits referenced above: (Ex. A) a copy of the School Committee’s Homeschool Policy; (Ex. B) a copy of a January 10, 2018 email from Goodall to the Superintendent outlining Goodall’s homeschooling plan for A.S., (Ex. E) a copy of a DCF report of child abuse/neglect regarding A.S., (Ex. G) a copy of the complaint filed against Goodall in the Worcester Superior Court by the Worcester Public Schools; (Ex. H) a copy of an official, completed application to homeschool A.S. for the 2018 academic year filed in April 2018; (Ex. I) a copy of an official, completed application to homeschool A.S. for the 2018-2019 academic year; and (Ex. J) a copy of the Superintendent’s letter notifying Goodall that the application to homeschool A.S. for the 2018-2019 school year had been approved. Moreover, the Court may take judicial notice of statutes, regulations and formally enacted government policies and procedures. I will accept the Worcester School Defendants’ factual assertions based on such records.

         It is a close call as to whether I should consider the following exhibits as it is arguable that they have been incorporated into the Complaint by negative reference: (Ex. C) a copy of A.S’s attendance record for the 2017-2018 school year, (Ex. D) a copy of Mahoney’s January 16, 2018, response to Goodall’s January 11, 2018 email, and (Ex. F) a Failure To Cause School Attendance Affidavit regarding A.S. More specifically, in the complaint, Plaintiffs repeatedly decry the fact that the Superintendent’s Office never contacted Goodall after she emailed the Superintendent that she was removing A.S. from Woodland Academy (“Woodland”) and intended to homeschool him. Yet the Superintendent and School Committee have provided a copy of a prompt response sent to Goodall outlining the procedure she should follow and informing her that until a plan was approved, if A.S. did not attend school he would be deemed absent[1]. Moreover, Goodall makes much of A.S.’s attendance after she informed the Superintendent that A.S. was to be homeschooled and states that any prior attendance records should not come into play. The exhibits proffered by the Worcester School Defendants establish that A.S. had a dismal attendance record before Goodall “withdrew” him from Woodland Academy in 2018 and had stopped attending school more than a week before Goodall emailed her homeschool notification to the Superintendent. Moreover, there is evidence cited by the Worcester School Defendants establishing that Goodall ignored other attempts to contact her and set up meetings. Despite the negative references raised by Plaintiffs’ allegations, I have not deemed the information contained in these exhibits incorporated by reference and have not considered them in deciding the motions to dismiss.

         While I have chosen not to consider certain exhibits and have not converted the Worcester School Defendants’ motion into one for summary judgment, I note that these and other exhibits call into question the veracity of numerous factual allegations asserted in support of Plaintiffs’ claims. Plaintiffs’ attempt to minimize any culpability for potential misstatements/mischaracterizations by repeatedly including the words “on information and belief, ” at the beginning of many of their factual assertions is, at best, disingenuous, and, at worst, sanctionable. The Court will reserve considering any possible Rule 11 sanctions until such time as a more complete record has developed.

         Findings of Fact

         Home Education in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

         The School Committee is the legislative and policy-making body charged with supervision of the Worcester Public School System with authority under Mass.Gen.L., ch. 71, § 37 to establish educational goals and policies for the schools in the district consistent with the requirements of law and statewide goals and standards established by the Massachusetts Board of Education. Under Massachusetts law, a parent may choose between lawful alternative forms of education by enrolling her child in a public day school, another day school approved by the school committee, or by seeing that a child is “otherwise instructed in a manner approved in advance by the superintendent or the school committee.” Mass.Gen.L. ch., 76, § 1 (“Chapter 76, §1”).

         The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (“SJC”) has held that a parent may choose to submit a proposal to homeschool her child pursuant to Mass.Gen.L. ch., 76, § 1. Care & Protection of Charles, 399 Mass. 324, 331, 504 N.E.2d 592 (1987). In Charles, the SJC provides guidelines and procedural requirements for handling disputes between parents and school committees over the approval of a homeschool program.

         The Worcester School Committee’s Homeschool Policy.

         The School Committee adopted an official written policy for homeschooling in the City of Worcester (“City”) starting with the 2017-18 school year. That policy (the “Homeschool Policy”) provides:

         Home Schooling

Parents/guardians who choose to educate their children at home, as allowed under Massachusetts law, can fulfill the requirements of the compulsory attendance statute by having their educational programs reviewed and accepted in advance by the Worcester Public Schools. The notifications to homeschool (elementary and secondary versions) are available upon request from the office of the Child Study Department at (508) 799- 3175. Parents are expected to provide evidence of their child’s Home Schooling Program once a year. Students completing high school through Home Schooling Programs are not eligible for a Worcester Public Schools' Diploma. A student being educated through Home Schooling may have access to public school activities of an extra-curricular nature (e.g. sports, clubs) with the approval of the superintendent or designee. The district reserves the right to allow enrolled students to have precedence or priority over the home schooled student with regard to placement on sports teams and activities that have limited enrollment. With approval of the superintendent or designee, and in consultation with the principal, a home schooled student may participate in sports teams and activities that have limited enrollment provided that he or she does not displace an enrolled student. Home schooled students applying to participate in district-sponsored sports must follow the athletic eligibility guidelines ….

         The School Committee has also adopted a written policy with regards to nonattendance at school (the “Attendance Policy”). The Attendance Policy states that “Parents and guardians are notified by phone on a daily basis if their child is absent. After five unexcused absences, the principal (or his/her designee) will notify the parent(s) or guardian(s) in writing and, when appropriate, request a meeting to discuss the student’s attendance. Parents will continue to receive written notification of their child’s attendance at every fifth absence from school. Parents and guardians will also receive attendance information through: (1) Interim and attendance progress reports (at five weeks into each marking period), and (2) Report cards (every ten weeks). The secondary report cards show students’ absences from each class and students’ total absences from school.” The Attendance Policy further states that “[w]hen a student accumulates excessive unexcused absences, the principal (or his/ her designee) may seek assistance from the Juvenile Court and/or the Department of Children and Families (“DCF”) to resolve attendance matters.” The Attendance Policy was adopted and in force in the City during the 2017-2018 school year.

         The School Committee’s Homeschool and Attendance Policies are customarily applied by the Superintendent. Pursuant to the Homeschool Policy, a parent who has withdrawn her child from a public City school and submitted a homeschool plan for approval must continue to cause her child to attend that public school until the homeschool plan is approved. Moreover, pursuant to the Homeschool and Attendance Policies, a child who has been withdrawn from public school to be homeschooled by her parent is marked “absent” by the public school until such time as the public school receives notice from the School Committee or Superintendent that the child’s homeschool program has been approved. When a child who has been withdrawn from public school to be homeschooled but is marked “absent” from the public school accumulates excessive unexcused absences, the City’s public schools file a report of educational neglect with the DCF.

         Goodall’s Homeschool Program

         In early January 2018, Goodall decided to homeschool her son, A.S., who was then enrolled in Woodland, a City public school. On January 11, 2018, Goodall sent the following homeschool educational plan to the Superintendent, via email, for approval by the Superintendent or School Committee pursuant to Chapter 76, §1:

         Dear Superintendent Binienda:

         Education Plan for [A.S]

I, Josilyn Goodall, the mother of [A.S] will be homeschooling him, effective immediately for the remainder of the year 2018-2018. This is his second grade year ….
Topics that may or may not be included, but not limited to:
Reading, writing, Geography, mathematics, arithmetic, history, science, technology, music, art, health, phys. ed., religion Resources/materials that may or may not be included, but not limited to:
Internet, reference books, library, computer games/apps, calculating/measuring tools, arts and craft supplies, writing supplies, board games, community resources, GECO I am sure that in conjunction with his hours from second grade at Woodland Academy that I will meet 990 hours of instruction as required by the public school system. I am of competent ability and good morals to homeschool my child and I also have an Associates Degree. An annual progress report or dated work sample will be submitted upon request.
I do not authorize Woodland Academy to disclose confidential or directory information to any third party organizations without my prior written consent. This includes but is not limited to the following directory information that Woodland Academy has designated as directory information, such as students name, address, telephone listing, date of birth, and major fields of study. Please commence authorization as expeditiously as possible and should there be any reason for disproval, please redirect me ...

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