Todd v. Carstarphen

Decision Date17 February 2017
Docket Number1:16–cv–3729–WSD
Citation236 F.Supp.3d 1311
Parties Daffanie TODD, on behalf of herself; R.D., R.D., and D.T., by and through their next friend, Daffanie Todd, Plaintiffs, v. Meria Joel CARSTARPHEN, in her official capacity as Superintendent, Atlanta Independent School System, and Atlanta Independent School System, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Georgia

Craig Lewis Goodmark, Goodmark Law Firm, LLC, Decatur, GA, Kimberly Dawn Perry Charles, William C. Thompson, Jonathan David Flack, Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc., Atlanta, GA, for Plaintiffs.

Laurance Joseph Warco, Anita K. Balasubramanian, Marygrace Kathleen Bell, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, LLP, Atlanta, GA, for Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

WILLIAM S. DUFFEY, JR., UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

This matter is before the Court on Plaintiffs Daffanie Todd ("Ms. Todd"), R.D., R.D. and D.T.'s (together, "Plaintiffs") Motion for Preliminary Injunction [3] and request for permanent injunctive relief.

I. INTRODUCTION

This is a case about how three children will get to and from their elementary school. The Court and the parties agree on the inestimable value of an education, including at the elementary school level. That goal has been impeded for these three children by their nonattendance in classes for weeks before this action was filed. At the Court's urging, and with the help of volunteers, the children have been transported to and from school while this matter is litigated.1 That a court had to be the driving force behind these arrangements illustrates the frustration of this case. Sometimes it takes time to understand the underlying issues in litigation. It took two evidentiary hearings, and multiple legal submissions, for the Court to discover what is really impeding the children's access to their elementary school.

II. FINDINGS OF FACT
A. Introduction

The Court is required to make specific findings of fact in this action because Plaintiffs' claims for injunctive relief were tried without a jury. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 52(a) ; United States v. Lopez , 466 Fed.Appx. 829, 831 (11th Cir. 2012).2 Having carefully "weigh[ed] and appraise[d]" the evidence in the record, including the credibility of those who testified at the evidentiary hearings, the Court states its factual findings below. 9C Arthur R. Miller, Fed. Prac. & Proc. Civ. § 2576 (3d ed. Apr. 2016 Update) ("[T]he district court must weigh and appraise the evidence offered by both parties impartially.").

B. The Parties

Defendant Atlanta Independent School System ("APS") is a public school system in Atlanta, Georgia. APS has jurisdiction over approximately 50,000 students and 100 schools, including Continental Colony Elementary School ("Continental Colony"), where Plaintiffs R.D., R.D. and D.T. (the "Children" or "Plaintiff Children") are enrolled. (Transcript of October 13, 2016 Hearing on Temporary Restraining Order ("2016 Tr.") at 8–9, 50; Transcript of January 5, 2017 Hearing on Preliminary and Permanent Injunction [32] ("2017 Tr.") at 133).3 Defendant Meria Joel Carstarphen ("Superintendent Carstarphen") is the Superintendent of APS. (2017 Tr. at 158).

Ms. Todd is thirty-seven (37) years old. (2016 Tr. at 7). In 2002, she was diagnosed with retinal detachment. (2016 Tr. at 10). In 2007, she lost sight in her right eye. (2016 Tr. at 10–11). On June 3, 2013, she lost sight in her left eye, and now is blind. (2016 Tr. at 11; 2017 Tr. at 16). Ms. Todd is a single mother with full custody of her four youngest children: D.D., who is fourteen (14) years old, Plaintiff R.D., who is nine (9) years old, Plaintiff R.D., who is eight (8) years old, and Plaintiff D.T., who is five (5) years old. (2016 Tr. at 8). Roger Dennison ("Dennison") is the father of D.D., R.D. and R.D. (2017 Tr. at 36). Ms. Todd's youngest child, D.T., has a different father. (2017 Tr. at 36). The Plaintiff Children are not disabled. (2017 Tr. at 56). Ms. Todd also has a daughter, aged twenty-one (21), who lives in Atlanta and who has three children of her own. (2017 Tr. at 37, 42). Ms. Todd has eight brothers and sisters, with whom she is not on speaking terms, and a sixty-nine (69) year old aunt who visits her once a week. (2016 Tr. at 17; 2017 Tr. at 33–34).4 Both of Ms. Todd's parents are deceased. (2017 Tr. at 33). Ms. Todd is the only adult who lives in her home. (2016 Tr. at 17).

Ms. Todd is unemployed and receives food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, free housing and utilities under Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937, and approximately $737 per month in Social Security disability benefits. (2016 Tr. at 10, 21–22). Her food stamps cover the cost of the groceries that she buys. (2016 Tr. at 22). Although Ms. Todd obtained court orders requiring Dennison and D.T.'s father to provide her with monthly child support payments of $384 and $116, respectively, she has not received payments from either individual. (2017 Tr. at 35–36). Ms. Todd claims she has sought, unsuccessfully, to enforce the court orders against the children's fathers. (2017 Tr. at 36–37).

Ms. Todd states that, because of her blindness, she is "currently unable to walk [outside her home] without an accompanying individual holding her arm as a guide." ( [3.2] at 1; see 2017 Tr. at 24). She has not learned to walk with the assistance of a walking cane or a guide dog. (See 2016 Tr. at 20). Ms. Todd generally uses her children as guides when she walks outside her home,5 or uses MARTA Mobility, a door-to-door transportation service.6 (2016 Tr. at 13, 15; 2017 Tr. at 24). She walks with D.D. and the Children to the grocery store at the top of her street. (2016 Tr. at 13). She allows D.D. and one of the Plaintiff Children to walk to the store together without adult supervision. (2017 Tr. at 38–40).7 The grocery store is about the same distance from her home as Continental Colony. She cooks for her children and walks independently in her home. (2017 Tr. at 23–24).

Ms. Todd has always distrusted strangers. (See 2017 Tr. at 17 ("[W]hen I could see, I didn't trust strangers.")). This distrust intensified after she lost her sight because she "can't see the wrong moves that [others] are making or their eyes." (2017 Tr. at 17). She believes "[p]eople are not right," "[t]he world is strangers," and "[e]verywhere in the world is getting dangerous." (2017 Tr. at 22, 30, 69, 75, 81). She has taught her children to "scream, holler, kick [and] bite" if "anybody touches [them]." (2017 Tr. at 72–73). Ms. Todd and her children do not leave their home for entertainment or social activities, including because she "cannot see if somebody is putting something in [her] Coca–Cola or [her] water." (2016 Tr. at 14; 2017 Tr. at 40). She generally does not allow her children outside of her range of hearing, including to play or interact with other children in their neighborhood. (2016 Tr. at 16–17). She "ha[s] to hear [her children] in order for [her] to feel safety." (2016 Tr. at 16). In her old neighborhood, she allowed other children to come to her home to play with her children, but she did not allow her children to go to others' homes because she feared for the safety of her children and "didn't want everybody to know [she] was blind, to be vulnerable ... to different crimes." (2016 Tr. at 16–17).

C. APS Transportation Policy

APS provides transportation, to and from elementary schools, for students who live more than one mile away from school. (2017 Tr. at 124; [31.1] at 3; [6.1] ¶ 4).8 Students who live within one mile of their elementary school live in what is known as the "walk zone." (2017 Tr. at 124; [31.1] at 3; [6.1] ¶ 4). Students in the walk zone do not receive APS transportation unless they are disabled or the walk zone is unsafe because of local crime, "unsafe walking conditions, traffic density patterns, things of that nature." (2017 Tr. at 127; [6.1] ¶¶ 4, 7).9 Approximately 200 bus stops have been established inside APS walk zones to accommodate disabled students or because of unsafe walking conditions. (2017 Tr. at 128). "Bus stops can be up to ½ mile apart and students could be required to walk up to ¼ mile to the nearest bus stop." ( [31.1] at 22).

If a student is disabled, APS convenes an Individual Education Plan Committee "to evaluate the student's disability and all aspects of their educational process." (2017 Tr. at 128; see [26.1] at 10 ("[W]e'll try to figure out what we need to do to get the [disabled] kid to school.")). At the request of the Committee, the Transportation Department may provide transportation, to and from school, for the disabled child. (2017 Tr. at 128). The Transportation Department also inspects any walk zone about which there are safety concerns. (2017 Tr. at 127). A walking path is deemed safe only if it is off the street, reasonably unobstructed, and at least four feet wide. (2017 Tr. at 127, 158–159; [27.1] at 40).10 The path must not require the children to "walk right next to the road" or to "intermittently walk out on the street." (2017 Tr. at 159). Concrete sidewalks are not required. (2017 Tr. at 158–159). It is "very usual," and "in step with the community sense," for children to walk across people's yards on their way to school. (2017 Tr. at 159). Although APS's Transportation Executive Director frequently receives transportation requests, he has never received a safety-based transportation request from parents of students who live in the Continental Colony walk zone. (2017 Tr. at 131–132, 151).

When a parent seeks bus services for a student not eligible for APS transportation, the Transportation Department "explore[s] the supports that are available within the family." ( [31.1] at 30). If this does not resolve the parent's concerns, the Transportation Department discusses the transportation request with the school principal and the school social worker. ( [31.1] at 30). The school social worker contacts the parent, assesses the situation, makes "recommendations to the parent for...

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