Education Expert Witness Opines on Hostile Classroom Environment


Education Expert Witness

Background

This case stemmed from Plaintiffs’ conflicts with the defendant school district over events in the United States history classroom of Defendant Bruce H. Smith at the Pleasant Valley, Pennsylvania high school in the spring of 2007. Smith showed students material that plaintiffs complained was sexually explicit, violent, and unrelated to the history course he was teaching. At issue in the case was whether Defendant John J. Gress retaliated against the plaintiffs for complaining about material presented by Defendant Smith, whether the school district should be liable for retaliation, and whether Defendant Smith violated the minor plaintiffs right to equal protection by creating a sexually hostile environment in his classroom.

Expert Witness

Defendant’s expert was Edward F. Dragan, Ed.D. Dragan is certified as a school superintendent, principal, special needs educator, teacher, management consultant, public manager and assistant superintendent for school business. He holds a master’s degree in education law from the Franklin Pierce Law Center, an educational doctorate from Rutgers University, an MA in Special Education from the College of New Jersey, and a BA in Industrial Arts Education and Psychology from the College of New Jersey. Dragan also has certificates in other education-related areas from other universities and educational programs, including Harvard and Rutgers. He served as a teacher and school administrator in various locations, mostly in New Jersey, from 1966-1993. In addition, Dragan serves as an adjunct professor in education and special education at Seton Hall University and the College of New Jersey. Since 1993, he has been the founder and principal consultant for Education Management Consulting in Lambertville, NJ. In that role, Dragan has provided services and seminars for numerous schools and agencies related to “student supervision, employee hiring, supervision and dismissal, special education, school evaluation in custody matters, sexual harassment, civil rights and other issues.” As part of this job, Dragan has served as an expert witness on educational and administrative matters in state and federal court across the country. Dragan has also published numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a several articles on sexual harassment in schools.

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Daubert Challenge

Plaintiffs did not challenge Dragan’s qualifications to testify as an expert on educational policy. Instead, plaintiffs argued two grounds for dismissal under the Daubert standard: (1) Dragan should be precluded from testifying about the school district’s response to plaintiff’s complaints about Smith, the teacher in this case. As the court had dismissed the claims against the school district for failing to respond properly to allegations that Smith had created a hostile environment, evidence about the adequacy of the district’s response to those allegations was not relevant to the case. (2) Plaintiffs also argued that Dragan’s testimony on whether Smith created a hostile environment with his teaching should be excluded because such testimony did not meet the requirements for reliability or use of scientific methods as required by Daubert. Instead, plaintiffs contended that the report simply represented Dragan’s subjective belief or unsupported speculation.

Conclusion

The Court denied the motion to exclude Dragan’s testimony due to its alleged irrelevance following the dismissal of the claims against the school district for failing to respond properly to allegations that Smith had created a hostile environment. The Court found that one of the questions in this case concerned the appropriateness of Gress’s reactions in responding to the plaintiffs’ complaints about Smith’s teaching. Plaintiffs contended that he revealed their names to Smith in retaliation for their complaints, and took other action related to his investigation and curriculum that was retaliatory. Defendant Gress contended that he did not reveal their identity in disclosing those complaints, but only spoke appropriately with Smith about general complaints. The Court believed that Dragan could testify that Gress’s actions in speaking with Smith were appropriate in the context of educational policy. Such testimony would make it less likely that Smith acted to retaliate against plaintiffs.

The Court also denied Plaintiff’s argument that Dragan’s testimony regarding Smith creating a hostile environment in the classroom was unreliable and should therefore be excluded. The Court stated that Dragan based his opinion on the evidence of record in this case, including the report of an investigation on the incidents, Smith’s personnel file, and the deposition transcripts of the various parties in the case. To this information, Dragan applied his expertise as an educator and scholar to determine whether the actions of Smith, Gress and the school district were appropriate under the circumstances. The Court believed the Plaintiff’s disputes of Dragan’s finding were good for cross-examination, but not for preclusion of Dragan’s testimony. Since the grounds for an expert’s opinion merely have to be good, they do not have to be perfect, the Court concluded that the evidence is admissible.

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