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Court Permits Suit Alleging Race Bias in White Student's Discipline

A federal appeals court has allowed most of a white high school student's lawsuit alleging racial bias in his discipline over an altercation with a black student to move forward.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled that a principal and two other administrators in the Nashville, Tenn., school district were not entitled to qualified immunity for their roles in the discipline of student Christian Heyne.

Heyne was a senior at Hillsboro High School in Nashville in the fall of 2008 when he got into the altercation with a black student as they were both leaving football practice. Court papers say Heyne's car accidently struck the foot of the black student in a school parking lot as Heyne was driving out. After Heyne got out of his car and apologized, the black student threatened to kill him, according to the lawsuit.

The black student received no discipline, court papers say. The principal of Hillsboro High had instructed staff members to be more lenient in enforcing the school's code of conduct against African-American students because a disproportionate number were serving in-school suspensions, the lawsuit alleges.

Heyne, meanwhile, was suspended for his role in the altercation, initially for two days for reckless endangerment. Later, the suspension was increased to 10 days based on charges of "using an object in an assaultive manner" and "cruelty to a student," the suit alleges. The principal increased the suspension at the direction of two Nashville district discipline officials, the suit says.

Heyne and his parents sued the school district and several school officials, alleging violations of his 14th Amendment right to due process and equal protection of the law, among other claims. The student contends that because of the discipline on his record, and because the suspension forced him to miss two football games, he lost out on any chance for a college football scholarship or an appointment to one of the U.S. military service academies.

A federal district court dismissed claims against the school district, but ruled that the five officials did not have qualified immunity on the suit's procedural due process and equal-protection claims against them.

In its Aug. 26 decision in Heyne v. Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, the 6th Circuit court panel unanimously upheld the denial of qualified immunity to the principal and the two district discipline officials. The appellate panel reversed the district court and granted immunity to two other district officials named in the suit.

"Read in the light most favorable to Heyne, the amended complaint contains well-pled factual allegations we must accept as true suggesting that [the principal] suspended Heyne for ten days based in part on Heyne's race," the 6th Circuit court said. "Heyne's factual allegations state a plausible claim against [the principal and the two district discipline officials] for violation of his right to equal protection."

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