Portrait headshot close-up photograph view of Kristin Lindgren-Bruzzone smiling

legal insights

By Kristin Lindgren-Bruzzone

Current legal challenges for schools explained


ost-COVID, attempting to predict the potential legal issues that will arise for TK-12 public education in any given year might be considered a fool’s errand. The myriad issues that affect public education are before every court in the nation, numerous times per year, with resulting decisions that can be contradictory even in the same courthouse.

close cropped view of a young boy looking at his phone while sitting on a bed

It is somewhat easier to predict legislative changes in California because of the makeup of its Legislature, but without that partisan alignment courts are much tougher to crack. However, as I begin my tenure as CSBA’s General Counsel, I will endeavor to use my almost 20 years of experience in education law to help CSBA’s members navigate the ever-changing legal landscape. In that spirit, summarized below are some of the most significant legal issues likely to affect California school districts and county offices of education in 2024.

Social media

The law traditionally lags behind technology, which often leads to litigation. Two areas in which to expect court decisions in the coming year are legal use of social media by board members and litigation against social media companies alleged to have designed their algorithms to target children, thereby causing negative impacts to both children and their schools. As to school board member social media use, in a resounding victory for local educational agency trustees on March 15, the U.S. Supreme Court developed a new and more restrictive test for determining when public officials can be held liable for First Amendment violations related to management of their social media accounts. The Court’s test largely upholds plaintiff’s arguments in O’Connor-Ratliff v. Garnier, a case where CSBA’s Education Legal Alliance (ELA) filed an amicus brief in support of Michelle O’Connor Ratliff, a Poway Unified School District trustee. The U.S. Supreme Court sent O’Connor-Ratliff v. Garnier back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to reconsider using a new, two-part test. Read more at blog.csba.org/oconnor-ratcliff-v-garnier-decision.

view of a hallway area that shows a clock on the wall, a green/white exit sign showing a figure posed in a run, just below the sign is an open doorway to a restroom

Numerous lawsuits by school districts and county boards of education across the country are pending against tech giants such as TikTok, X (formerly Twitter) and YouTube (Google) seeking injunctive relief to stop these companies from allegedly using their algorithms to target children, as well as to recover money damages to fund measures to address the negative impacts of social media use. The lawsuits allege that the actions of tech companies have created a mental health crisis among schoolchildren, from a significant increase in ADHD diagnoses among children to students taking their own lives. Mental health continues to be a large concern for educators and boards of education, and this is one area that could see judicial action to provide redress to schools and students. Regardless of the outcome, issues relating to social media and its overlap with education and government transparency will continue to arise as technology evolves and changes.

Parental rights
Much ink has been spilled by CSBA’s Legal Department to explain the various court decisions that have come down on the ongoing battles over parental rights in relation to transgender and gender nonconforming students’ rights. Increasingly, these decisions are becoming more and more difficult to apply. Federal district courts and state courts have issued numerous opinions, some conflicting, regarding a parent’s right to know if their child has begun to identify as gender nonconforming or transgender at school, which facilities and activities such students are using or participating in, and the removal of books and curriculum with LGBTQ-related content. Attorney General Rob Bonta has also weighed in heavily on this issue, obtaining an injunction against a district’s parental notification policy. While it feels that these issues are in a bit of a holding pattern at this point, several appeals are pending, and it remains to be seen how each court will rule on these relatively new issues. As different federal circuit courts of appeal weigh this issue, it is very likely that they will reach different holdings, thus setting the stage for the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene to resolve a circuit split. However, how the high court would weigh is unclear. In January, the Court declined to hear an appeal from an Indiana school district regarding its policy prohibiting a transgender student from using the bathroom of his choice, leaving in place a lower court ruling that allowed a transgender boy to use the boys’ restroom.
Local control
School and county boards of education have seen their local control eroded in numerous ways over the last years. In the latest battle over local control, Cayla J., et al v. State of California, a case that alleged learning loss, a settlement has been reached that requires the defendants, the State of California, the State Board of Education, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the California Department of Education to propose legislation that will force local educational agencies to use their remaining Learning Recovery Emergency Block Grant for specific learning loss purposes. This demonstrates how litigation can result in directives not just about policy but about how LEAs spend their money. While learning loss is rightly a critical concern of CSBA members, rather than being instructed by a court to act in a certain way, districts and county offices of education should have the flexibility to address it the way that is most beneficial to students in their specific community. LEAs should be on the lookout for litigation that could result in further erosion of local control.

These three topics are just a sampling of the areas where courts will weigh in and impact the important work of CSBA members to serve students in the coming year and beyond. As CSBA’s General Counsel, I will continue to help shine the light on legislation and court decisions impacting board members and public education, and will provide necessary assistance in implementing new laws as interpreted by the courts. In addition to the work done within CSBA’s Legal Department, the Education Legal Alliance stands ready to become involved in litigation with issues of statewide importance as necessary to support CSBA’s members and advance their interests.

Kristin Lindgren-Bruzzone is CSBA’s General Counsel.

Please note that the information provided here by CSBA is for informational purposes and is not legal advice. Please contact your district or county office of education’s legal counsel for legal questions related to this information.