To what extent are districts, schools liable for students' safety?
Here's how the courts have weighed in and what their decisions mean for school accountability.
While a school’s primary goal is to educate students, another priority is providing a safe environment. It’s a responsibility enforced in federal, state and local laws, but ultimately, students can — and do — get hurt. And when they do, many blame the school or district.
Getting scraped up during recess, for instance, isn’t new. Neither is getting made fun of by a classmate. Some medical experts call falls and broken bones "inevitable," and some scholars cite teasing as an "important preparation for life." But more severe issues, including sexual harassment, cyberbullying and school shootings are increasingly penetrating classrooms, spurring legal disputes over who's responsible.
"School safety is moving from the schoolhouse to the court of public opinion and the law," said school safety consultant Kenneth Trump. "But every case is unique — the legal issues vary, the allegations vary, and that's what makes it hard to pin it down to a handful of specific issues and put it in this neat little box."
Hundreds of lawsuits point the finger at schools or districts when students get injuried. Among the most recent was a suit against Broward County Public Schools and the county sheriff's office — both of which a federal judge said didn't have a legal duty to protect students — after the Parkland, Florida, shooting. These cases span different issues and reached varying verdicts, but they involve the same question: To what degree are these entities liable for students’ safety?
Below, we’ve broken down a list of cases involving a school or district's role in student safety. Here’s what happened and what they mean in the debate:
M.S.D. of Martinsville v. Rebecca Jackson
What happened: In March 2011, two students at West Martinsville Middle School in Indiana were injured in a shooting: One, who was shot twice in the stomach, was targeted by the shooter — a former student known to threaten and harass his peers — according to court documents.
Though the shooter threatened the victim several times — and threats were reported to teachers before the shooting — teachers didn't tell the administration, court documents say. Additionally, in the suit, the victim’s mother said the district didn't protect her son because certain school entrances were left unlocked and monitors weren't properly warned about the shooter being a threat, among other alleged safety breaches.
While the district argued the suit should be dismissed because it couldn’t have reasonably prevented the shooting, an appeals court disagreed.
What this means: This ruling shows schools or districts can be found liable if evidence proves the event could have reasonably been prevented, either because officials had reason to believe it would take place or if their response protocol wasn’t sufficiently implemented.
Scarlett Lewis, et al. v. Newtown Board of Education and Town of Newtown
What happened: In one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.
On the day of the shooting, the school had a new security system that required visitors to be visibly identified to get buzzed into the building. Though doors to the school were locked when he got there, Lanza used an assault rifle to shoot his way in.
Parents of two children who died sued the town and the Newtown Board of Education, arguing school officials didn’t follow security protocol and that there wasn't sufficient staff training for lockdowns, according to court documents. The town requested summary judgment, and a Superior Court judge granted the motion.
In her decision, the judge said, "...Faculty and staff had to make split-second decisions ... and subjecting their decisions to scrutiny, aided by hindsight, would no less serve the public interest than subjecting a police officer's discretionary decisions to second guessing."
She added, "Emergencies, by their very nature, are sudden and often rapidly evolving events, and a response can never be 100% scripted and directed."
What this means:
According to this ruling, school officials can have similar protections to police officers. Even if a school has a safety protocol, it’s hard to force people to have scripted emergency responses without taking split-second judgment into account. And if someone gets hurt, it’s not necessarily something for which a school or district is liable.
Mitchell v. Cedar Rapids Community School District
What happened: A 9th-grade special education student in Iowa was "rarely, if ever, without direct adult supervision because of her diminished capacity," according to official documents. Teachers thought she was in a relationship with a 12th-grade special education student and were concerned they might become sexually active, the documents say.
One day, the 9th-grader got her mother's permission to go to a friend’s house after school, but she skipped last period. The 12th-grader raped her that afternoon. While the school day had ended when the rape happened, the girl’s mom didn’t know her daughter missed last period, and there were no special requirements for handling absences in her Individualized Education Program (IEP). Her mother sued the district for negligence, failing to monitor her daughter and notify her in a timely manner.
The district argued that because the rape didn’t happen during school hours or on school grounds, it wasn’t legally liable. But the Iowa Supreme Court ruled it could have been prevented.
What this means: This ruling doesn't imply a district or school is legally obligated to protect students outside of school hours or off school grounds in non-school activities. However, it does show that in certain cases, if evidence shows it either could have predicted or prevented such an incident from happening, they could be liable.
Shawnee Mathis, et al. v. Wayne County Board of Education, et al.
What happened: Two Tennessee parents sued the Board of Education in Wayne County after their sons were allegedly sexually assaulted and harassed by boys on their middle school basketball team. The victims, both 7th-graders, allegedly faced sexual harassment from 8th-grade teammates, and these incidents later escalated to sexual assault, court documents say.
After the coach first heard about the incident, he allegedly didn’t report it. One boy’s parent later told the school, and the 8th-graders who were responsible were suspended for 10 days. The other boy’s parent went to the school with concerns about what happened, but the suit alleges the principal didn’t seem too troubled by it.
The boys continued to face harassment and were later pulled out of school. The school took some steps to prevent locker room misconduct, but in a disciplinary hearing, a committee of school officials chose not to suspend the 8th-graders for the rest of the basketball season, and the Wayne County Board of Education moved up their reinstatement date.
The suit alleges Wayne County Schools officials were "very calloused" about the incidents and that the boys were subjected to sexual harassment, which violated their Title IX rights. After years of litigation, an appeals court upheld a verdict ruled in favor of the families.
What this means: Students and families who file suit often face many hurdles in proving a school or district is liable. According to the Associated Press, districts in some states — including Virginia and Georgia — have "absolute immunity" from state-level lawsuits, while others, such as Florida, cap amounts schools must pay in damages. It's possible for a school to be held accountable, but it can be a high bar to hit.
Kowalski v. Berkeley County Schools
What happened: In December 2005, a West Virginia high school student created a MySpace page mainly to ridicule another student, according to legal documents. About two dozen peers joined the page, and some accessed it from school computers.
When the victim and her parents filed a harassment complaint with the school, the site's creator was suspended for five days for the so-called "hate website," which violated school bullying, harassment and intimidation policies. She sued, claiming her First Amendment rights were violated, because her site was private and was created outside of school.
A circuit court ruled the site's contents interfered with the school environment, and schools are obligated to protect students from all forms of bullying and harassment. The court also said it was "foreseeable" that the website would "create a substantial disruption in the school," therefore allowing the school to control the student’s speech.
What this means: Cyberbullying is a relatively new concept, and until 2018, some states, including New Jersey, had still not seen a case of this nature. As a result, there’s still room for precedent to be set. However, there are implications: Because the court said the site could foreseeably cause school disruption, and officials can control student speech in this scenario, it’s possible the school could have been legally liable if it hadn’t intervened.
Wyke v. Polk County School Board
What happened: The mother of Shawn Wyke, a 13-year-old who died by suicide, sued her son’s district in Polk County, Florida, alleging administrators knew he tried to commit suicide twice at school before his death. When the dean of students found out about Wyke’s first attempt, he called the student into his office and read Bible verses, according to court documents. He thought they made Wyke feel better and that he did all he could that day.
At another point, a custodian entered the bathroom and a boy — she couldn’t positively identify him as Wyke — emerged, telling her “if he had stayed in the restroom any longer, he would have killed himself,” the case reads. She told the vice principal, who reportedly asked her “if she could not find anything else to do.” A few days later, Wyke hanged himself in his backyard.
Wyke’s mother sued the school board, the vice principal and the principal, alleging there was inadequate intervention and prevention training for school employees that contributed to her son's wrongful death. A district court ruled the district could be found liable due to a failure to notify Wyke’s parents about what happened, and their knowledge of his two attempts made the incident foreseeable.
What this means: Hundreds of students die by suicide each year, and many parents or guardians argue schools could have done more to prevent this. But in the past, courts often haven't deemed schools and districts liable for student suicides unless it was clear officials knew a student was suicidal and did nothing, or if they intentionally made things worse.
However, the sampling of cases to examine is relatively limited. Since this suit was filed, several schools and/or districts are facing legal action for their alleged liability in similar incidents. The outcomes of those cases will reveal a lot about where the line is drawn for schools' and districts' legal responsibilities.
Brewington v. Philadelphia School District
What happened: During gym class in May 2012, a 9-year-old student tripped and fell, propelling himself into the unpadded concrete wall, according to court documents. He cut his head and fell unconscious, and he was later diagnosed with a concussion. He missed school for a month or two as a result, and the incident caused headaches and memory problems.
More than a year later, the boy’s mother sued the elementary school and the Philadelphia School District, alleging the lack of padding on the gym walls was dangerous and constituted negligence. The school argued it was immune from the suit, but in a December 2018 ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected this claim.
The court said this incident qualified as an exception to the immunity provision, giving the boy’s mom a right to sue. According to the "real property exception," if an agency doesn’t put adequate safety features in place for normal or reasonable use of property, it can be sued. In this case, the court found, the lack of padding could constitute negligence.
What this means: While the school hasn’t been deemed liable for the students’ injuries, it does show that schools' governmental immunity is not a hard and fast rule. As Michael Levin, who represents the district, told The Legal Intelligencer, "We believe it greatly expands the liability exposure of public political subdivisions."
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