Judge shoots down Knox County gum-chewing lawsuit

By: - April 18, 2022 1:29 pm
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Parents of a Knox County high school freshman with a rare hearing disorder are seeking an emergency appeal after a federal judge refused to force the Board of Education to ban eating and gum chewing in classrooms, court records show.

U.S. District Judge Katherine Crytzer on Friday dismissed a lawsuit filed by the parents of a freshman at L&N Stem Academy who were seeking a ban on classroom snacking and gum chewing as a “reasonable accommodation” for their daughter’s hearing disorder.

Crytzer ruled the parents were too quick to file suit and should, instead, have sought relief under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, or IDEA, from the Knox County Board of Education first.

The student at issue in the case is identified in the lawsuit as a Jane Doe to protect her from harassment, court records show.

The parents, who also are not identified in the litigation, are now seeking an emergency appeal with the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals of Crytzer’s dismissal of the lawsuit and are again asking Crytzer to issue an injunction against classroom snacking and gum chewing in the interim.

IDEA is a federal law that requires schools to provide “reasonable accommodations” to ensure that children with disabilities are afforded free and “adequate” public education.

The parents argue, via attorneys Justin Gilbert and Jessica Salonus, that they have no beef with the schooling their daughter is receiving and, therefore, do not need relief under IDEA.

“Again and again, Jane Doe is forced by eating and gum noises to flee perfectly adequate instruction,” their motion states. “And according to all indications, she would excel in school if she could simply access the same instruction already being provided in her classrooms, with an accommodation … the cessation of eating and gum in her classrooms. That involves no expense to the school district.”

The parents, who also are not identified in the litigation, are now seeking an emergency appeal with the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals of Crytzer’s dismissal of the lawsuit and are again asking Crytzer to issue an injunction against classroom snacking and gum chewing in the interim.

Jane Doe has a condition known as misophonia, a “disorder of decreased tolerance to specific sounds,” according to records filed in the U.S. District Court litigation. Her parents contend “chewing gum and eating noises” trigger her condition and causes her to seek “escape” from the classroom.

She had no problems with the condition while attending a private school – the Episcopal School of Knoxville – because that school bans eating and gum chewing in all classrooms, the lawsuit stated.

“(She) excelled (at the private school), becoming a National Junior Honors Society member with straight A’s,” the lawsuit continued.

But the Knox County Board of Education does not have a system-wide ban on snacking and gum chewing in classrooms and instead gives the power of choice to each school.

Last year, Jane Doe enrolled at the L&N Stem Academy, a Knox County magnet school that allows each classroom teacher to decide how to handle snacking and gum chewing in class.

“One of her teachers requires students to spit out their gum at the beginning of class, but other teachers do not control eating and chewing gum in their classrooms, to the point that it is rampant,” the lawsuit stated.

Triggered by these “mouth noises,” the lawsuit alleged, Jane Doe was unable to concentrate and “process” information and often felt an overwhelming desire to “escape” the classroom.

When the parents complained and sought a school-wide ban on snacking and gum chewing in class, the school system instead offered Jane Doe what Knox County Deputy Law Director Amanda Lynn Morse called “reasonable accommodations.”

She was provided “preferential seating away from distractions” and allowed the use of “noise canceling devices,” Morse wrote. She was allowed to leave the classroom when necessary and was provided “notes and materials” from those absences, Morse continued. She was given “extra time to complete assignments and testing” and was allowed to take tests in an “alternate location,” Morse wrote.

But the girl’s parents argued their daughter was missing “approximately half her educational time” and was unable to participate in a special program known as the “Genius Hour” that takes place during lunch at L&N. They filed suit in February and sought an injunction to end classroom snacking and gum chewing entirely.

“By not accommodating her needs, L&N is causing physical harm to Jane Doe, as well as a gap in learning, negatively affecting Jane Doe’s grades and learning,” the lawsuit stated.

The school board fought back, arguing such a ban was extreme, unnecessary to provide the girl an education and nearly impossible to enforce.

“The crux of the matter is that (the student) has not asserted she has been denied access (to an adequate education),” Morse wrote. “Rather, she is arguing that her access is not happening in the manner she prefers.

“It is hard to imagine how (the school board) could effectively implement (the girl’s) desired accommodation, i.e., banning chewing in the classroom,” Morse continued. “Would this ban apply to students chewing on their lips? Or just moving their mouth? How could a teacher with significantly less sensitive hearing than plaintiff be expected to hear that noise?”

The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has not yet addressed the parents’ bid for an emergency appeal or their request for a preliminary injunction against chewing in classrooms.

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Jamie Satterfield
Jamie Satterfield

Jamie Satterfield is an investigative journalist with more than 33 years of experience, specializing in legal affairs, policing, public corruption, environmental crime and civil rights violations. Her journalism has been honored as some of the best in the nation, earning recognition from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Awards, the Green Eyeshade Awards, the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Managing Editors Association, the First Amendment Center and many other industry organizations. Her work has led to criminal charges against wrongdoers, changes in state law and citations in legal opinions and journals. She was married to the love of her life for 28 years and is now a widow and proud mother of two successful children of good character and work ethic.