MADISON, Ala. (WHNT) — This week has produced two major developments in a lawsuit filed against two James Clemens administrators and the Madison City Schools Board of Education (MCSBOE).
The lawsuit was filed in March on behalf of a female student at James Clemens High School (JCHS) and her mother against the vice principal, the school’s former principal, and the school board.
The lawsuit says Jason Watts, an assistant principal and athletic director at the school, struck the female student multiple times in the head, after being bitten by her while he tried to break up a scuffle on the bus.
Court filings Tuesday say the plaintiffs are dropping the MCSBOE as a defendant, but continuing their case against Jason Watts and Brian Clayton. Clayton was the principal of JCHS at the time of the incident. He is now serving as the Hartselle City Schools superintendent.
Several students on a school bus parked at JCHS began filming when an argument turned physical between the female student and Watts.
The lawsuit alleges the student stepped onto the bus around 4 p.m. on December 14, 2022, to head home. She sat down next to a friend and the lawsuit says another student stood up and started yelling at her.
Clayton, the then-Principal, was standing at the front of the bus watching the exchange, and a School Resource Officer (SRO) was not called, the suit claims.
Watts then approached both students, according to the lawsuit. The student who is said to have started the argument with Jane Doe, allegedly punched her in the stomach before being escorted off the bus by Watts, the suit claims.
When Jane Doe attempted to get off the bus, Watts is accused of grabbing her wrist and pushing her back into one of the bus seats. As she was seated and Watts was standing, he pushed his forearm into Doe’s face pushing her head into the back of the seat, according to the lawsuit.
The suit says the student then bit Watts’ arm in response, and the SRO was still not called.
The lawsuit argues, “In retaliation and apparently now at a complete loss over his emotions … Watts began punching Jane Doe in the face with a closed fist.”
Watts moved to dismiss the lawsuit Monday. That court filing says Watts “denies the allegations that he excessively punished Jane Doe by punching her in the face and that the Defendants retaliated against Doe by placing her in an alternative school. But even if those allegations were true, they could establish nothing more than a state law tort, not a violation of the United States Constitution. The Complaint is due to be dismissed.”
Watts’ attorneys argue he was acting in his official capacity as a school official so he is immune from a lawsuit, they also argue there is no constitutional violation and that Watts acted in self-defense.
Attorneys for Watts argue, “… the Plaintiff claims that in response to an altercation between Jane Doe and another student on a school bus, Assistant Principal Watts pushed Jane Doe into a seat when she tried to exit the bus, and when Jane Doe then bit Mr. Watts’ arm violently in retaliation, he punched her with his fist. Those allegations are serious if true, but by 11th Circuit precedents, they fail to reach the level of a constitutional violation.”
The filing continues, “Jane Doe claims Mr. Watts punished her excessively for an altercation with another student and that Mr. Clayton witnessed the punishment and failed to intervene. She does not allege that either Defendant’s actions were based on her gender or race or any other protected classification, nor that a student of a different gender or race was treated more favorably.”
“Even if Mr. Watts’ alleged actions were not justified in self-defense of Jane Doe’s attempts to injure him, they support nothing more than a state law tort claim…” Watts’ filing argues.
According to the lawsuit, the student was in special education with an Individual Education Plan.
The day after the incident, Madison City Schools Superintendent Ed Nichols held a press conference where he gave their description of the incident and provided photos of a bite mark on Watts’ arm.
At the time, Nichols said no disciplinary action would be taken against the administrators, “I’m never going to tell someone [that] if they are being assaulted, that they can’t defend themselves from further harm.”
Attorneys for Madison City Schools asked a federal judge to throw out the lawsuit in April.
The plaintiffs have been allowed to amend their complaint and will also allow the defendants to refile their motions to dismiss – if necessary – in response to an amended complaint.