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Rinearson v. Fort Wayne Community Schools

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

June 25, 2019

ROBERT RINEARSON, Plaintiff,
v.
FORT WAYNE COMMUNITY SCHOOLS, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          HOLLY A. BRADY JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Fort Wayne Community Schools' (“FWCS”) Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 30) and its supporting Memorandum of Law (ECF No. 31). The issue presented in the summary judgment filings is whether Plaintiff Robert Rinearson (“Rinearson”) was fired from his position with FWCS due to his verbal intimidation of, and physical contact with, a nine-year-old female student, or due to a guest column he penned for his local newspaper in support of law enforcement.[1] This Court finds that Rinearson has designated no evidence that could lead a reasonable jury to find that his firing was the result of the latter, and therefore summary judgment will be entered in favor of FWCS.[2]

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         A. Rinearson's Treatment of Students in his Care

         Rinearson worked for FWCS for a total of twenty-one years, the last seventeen of which he served as the Supervisor of Safety and Student Management for FWCS' transportation department. Rinearson's job responsibilities included a wide range of tasks including training bus drivers and, when required, personally appearing on-scene to assist bus drivers with disruptive students.

         There appears to have been a disconnect between Rinearson's instructions during training and his actions when he was called upon to put that training into action. On the training side, Rinearson focused on de-escalating encounters with students. This meant that, with limited exceptions, bus drivers were not to yell at students, and they were never to intimidate or scare students. Once an incident had been de-escalated, Rinearson taught drivers to take a positive approach with the student involved. Physical force was only to be used against students when they posed a danger to themselves or others. These teachings were in accordance with FWCS' policies, which focused on the well-being of students and emphasized a student's right to be treated with “dignity and respect.”

         Unfortunately, it appears that Rinearson rarely practiced what he preached. This is highlighted by two events during the Spring of 2017. On March 16, 2017, Rinearson was called to respond to a report of an unruly student on a bus. By the time Rinearson arrived, the situation had calmed to the point that Rinearson could not determine which child needed correction; the bus driver had to identify the student that had caused the problem. What transpired next was captured on a security camera located inside the bus. Rinearson proceeded to corner the student, estimated to be an eighth-grade boy, against the bus seat and yell mere inches from the student's face. Among the variety of invectives hurled by Rinearson was an apparent threat to fight the child; Rinearson screamed, “let's go” and indicated that he wanted to “take [the child] outside.” At this point the student began to cry, which prompted Rinearson to tell him to “stop acting like a baby.” Throughout the interaction the child is upset.

         Rinearson's yelling and screaming were so loud that they drew the attention of nearby residents. One such resident recorded Rinearson's conduct on his phone, and subsequently uploaded the video to the web service YouTube. The video apparently achieved some amount of viral internet fame.

         When he learned that the video had been uploaded to the internet, Rinearson informed Krista Stockman (“Stockman”), who handled public relations for FWCS. Stockman told Rinearson to “be careful.” The situation also came to the attention of Charles Cammack (“Cammack”), FWCS' Chief Operating Officer. Cammack instructed Rinearson's supervisor, Frank Jackson (“Jackson”), to tell Rinearson that his actions were unacceptable. The parties dispute whether Jackson ever relayed this message.

         A similar event occurred on May 25, 2017. Again, Rinearson was called to address a report of an unruly student and, again, the situation had resolved itself by the time Rinearson arrived. When the student was identified by the bus driver, Rinearson immediately began yelling at the child. Rinearson informed the child that he was going to “make it real hard” on her and ordered her off of the bus. Although the child was visibly upset by Rinearson's conduct, she complied with Rinearson's command and exited the bus without incident. Again, Rinearson's conduct was captured by a security camera located on the bus.

         Once the child exited the bus, the events were recorded by security cameras at the school where the bus was stopped. Rinearson and the child are seen entering the exterior doors to the school. The student began “slow walking” between the exterior and interior doors, and then stopped completely. While the parties dispute how to characterize Rinearson's subsequent actions, it is undisputed that he physically contacts the child to assure her complete entry into the school. The child repeatedly objects and asks Rinearson to keep his hands off her.

         Rinearson's actions in and around the area of the doors was witnessed by two FWCS employees: Dottie Davis (“Davis”), FWCS' Director of Security; and Diane Pelkington (“Pelkington”), the school's principal. Davis believed that Rinearson acted inappropriately because he was aggressive with the child and used unnecessary force. Pelkington also described Rinearson's conduct as “aggressive, ” and stated that the situation was “attention getting, ” “ugly, ” and “not pretty.” Both women described the child as upset and crying.

         Davis reported her concerns to Cammack. Cammack instructed Davis to prepare a written statement, and then turned the matter over to Kathy Carr (“Carr”), FWCS' Director of Human Resources, to investigate. Carr interviewed witnesses, reviewed videos of both incidents, and spoke with Jackson. Carr credited the accounts of Davis and Pelkington and was particularly concerned by Rinearson's treatment of the girl on the bus. Carr believed that Rinearson's use of force on the girl was premeditated, as evidenced by his remark that he would “make it real had” on her. Jackson shared Carr's concerns, particularly regarding Rinearson's escalation of the situation, his verbal intimidation of the child, and his unnecessary physical force.

         Following their review, Jackson and Carr determined that Rinearson should be terminated, and reported that recommendation to Cammack. Cammack concurred, so he and Carr met with Dr. Wendy Robinson (“Robinson”), FWCS' Superintendent, to convey the recommendation. As she had with every other termination recommendation during her tenure, Robinson agreed and forwarded the recommendation to the school board. The school board approved the termination recommendation, and Rinearson was fired. The designated evidence indicates that Rinearson was suspended on May 25, 2017, and terminated on June 5, 2017.

         For his part, Rinearson largely does not contest the fact of what occurred during the March and May incidents, but instead challenges the interpretation of those incidents. Rinearson argues that nothing he did violated any FWCS policy. In support, Rinearson tenders not only his affidavit, but numerous other affidavits from police officers, former FWCS administrators, and bus drivers all attesting that Rinearson's actions were not inappropriate. Moreover, Rinearson's actions were apparently business as usual. According to Rinearson, these incidents were indicative of how he had handled similar situations for years; videos of similar events were reviewed by Rinearson, Jackson, and Cammack up to fifty times per year during Rinearson's tenure. In short, Rinearson views these incidents as little more than evidence of his “old school” approach to student discipline.

         B. Plaintiffs Political Writings

         Separate from his role with FWCS, Plaintiff was a regular contributor to the editorial pages of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel newspaper, having written editorials for nearly thirty years. From January 1, 2013, through May 2017, Rinearson wrote some twenty-five articles covering a wide range of topics. These included:

Chaos Rules When Heroes Go Off the Stage, and the Clowns Go On - advocating for gun rights through a discussion of evil clowns throughout history;
Lack of Presidential Leadership is Making Us All Feel Vulnerable - criticizing President Obama for focusing on his golf game instead of various world crises;
If the Kids Won't Eat It, Your Good Intentions Will All Be for Naught - arguing against Michelle Obama's National School Lunch Program because kids don't eat healthy food;
• Police Aren't Waging War but are Expected to Enter War Zones - advocating for an increase in military ...

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