Tales Out of School
Timothy J. Mullins represents school districts and their myriad legal issues
Published in 2019 Michigan Super Lawyers magazine
on August 22, 2019
Updated on August 27, 2019
Consider some of the most controversial issues of our time: gun violence, sexual harassment, transgender rights, and the ramifications of rapidly changing technology. Timothy J. Mullins gets to weigh in on all of them, thanks to a practice area that is as niche as it is varied: school law.
“Everything in society comes to schools, so if you have something happening in the community, you’re going to see it at school,” he says.
Over 30 years, it has gone from one aspect of Mullins’ repertoire to monopolizing 90 percent of what he does. As the go-to lawyer representing Michigan school districts, Mullins deals with a range of issues, including how schools should support students who suffered neurological damage in the aftermath of the Flint water crisis to civil rights, constitutional litigation, employment contracts, union negotiations, and governmental immunity.
“I’m always proud to say I represent school districts,” he says. “To try to solve problems for educators is a positive endeavor in my mind. And where there’s a lot of change in our society, you’re right in the middle of it.”
Cases of bullying, sexual harassment and consent are now amplified by social media and smartphones—whether that’s cyberbullying or minors sharing pornographic pictures. “How can a school control what you’re doing with your computer or iPhone at 8 at night at home?” he says. “There have been cases where schools have disciplined somebody for what they have done on their own time away from school, and the school was held to have violated their constitutional rights.”
What Mullins finds especially interesting are the opportunities to shape law. He was involved with the first federal case involving transgender student bathrooms and locker rooms, which settled out of court, and another dealing with guns.
After Clio Area School Districts banned firearms, the advocacy group Michigan Open Carry sued, arguing state law prohibited such a policy. “The gun owners would intentionally show up at school board meetings or come to school with a giant .45-caliber pistol strapped to their waists and very much on display, and you can imagine,” Mullins says. “One of our arguments was, ‘If I’m a principal given today’s environment and history, and I see a guy walking up with a gun, what am I supposed to do? Do I say I don’t know who this guy is, but he’s smiling? Or do I push the button and say lock down, then 911 is called, kids freak out and are crying, and the parents …’ Our argument was that’s not safe and not conducive to an educational environment.”
The Michigan Supreme Court ruled in Mullins’ favor. “I’m pretty happy about the case,” he says. “I’m not an anti-gun person, but the fact is that it just doesn’t work having somebody brandishing a gun come into a school.”
Mullins also argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, when a special education student’s family sued for the right to bring her service animal to school. The Jackson County Intermediate School District determined that a one-to-one adult human aide would be more appropriate and reasonable accommodation, Mullins says, given that another student suffered from PTSD from having been mauled by a dog. The court vacated the dismissal and sent the case back down.
“Service animals are something of a new concept,” Mullins says. “Everything new in the world comes to school, and you’re on the front end of developing the law.”
Mullins’ Favorite Things When He Was in School
- Subject: This was a long time ago, so maybe carving clay tablets. [Laughs.]
- Lunch: The law school, where Tigers stadium now is, wasn’t in the best of neighborhoods, but there was a bar called The Elwood that was my favorite place for lunch and pitchers of beer.
- Teacher: Everyone hated the sadomasochistic professor who taught constitutional law, but I got a kick out of him and he had a bigger effect on my legal thinking than most.