July 21, 2017

School District Liability: Duty of Care Owed to Students, Visitors, Volunteers, Trespassers and Local Agencies

Whenever children are involved in events on school premises, there is always the possibility of school district liability for incidents that happen on school grounds or at school-sponsored events. This foreseeability gives rise to a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent a child from being harmed. Public school districts may find themselves liable for injury — not only for those suffered by their own students, but also for those incurred by children who are invited onto school grounds, who attend separate programs on school grounds, and even those who are considered trespassers.

School-sponsored events, such as an after-school club, a school dance, or a daycare program run by the school board, are clearly extensions of the school. With these types of programs, the school’s safety and supervisory policies apply. If a person is hurt or is sexually assaulted during a school-sponsored or operated event, it is generally clear that school district liability will attach if there is a finding of negligence.

A school district’s liability for injuries to children on its grounds is far less clear, however, when an outside organization is involved or when an injured party was not authorized to be on campus. Schools sometimes rent or give space to organizations like the Boy Scouts, a community basketball organization, or a private dance school to provide services to the general public, students at the school, or both. Very often, outside organizations cooperate with the school to provide before- and after-school services for the school’s own students, but these programs are not directly operated by the school. Typically, schools have policies that spell out an approval process for the use of their space. However, based on some of the cases for which we have been engaged, these policies do not always go far enough — thus leaving school districts open to liability if a child involved in an activity that is run by an outside organization is injured on school grounds.

 

School District Liability When an Outside Agency or Organization is Involved

For example, one of our cases involved a school that allowed a community athletic association to use its gym. The board of education approved the application and even noted that the organization had liability insurance. One of the volunteers with the athletic association led a participant, who was also a student at the school, to the restroom — where the volunteer sexually assaulted the student. When we reviewed the facts to render an opinion as to whether this school acted within the professional standard of care, it became evident that the athletic association never trained its volunteers in the prevention, detection, and reporting of suspected child abuse. It did not have a plan for supervising its volunteers, nor did it check their backgrounds before allowing them to have contact with the children in their program.

One of the questions that arose in this case was: Did the school have a responsibility to ensure that the other organization had policies in place to reasonably protect the school’s own students from harm?

School district liability and duty of the school to the plaintiff depends upon the relationship between the plaintiff and the school, the relationship between the plaintiff and the other organization, and the relationship between the school and the other organization. Often, these relationships are complicated, and it is necessary to determine which agency had responsibility for the plaintiff’s safety at the time of the incident.

Consider the following examples:

  • A school allows one of its teachers to use the music room after school to provide private lessons. The teacher systematically lures a student into an inappropriate relationship and is accused of sexually abusing him in the school.
  • A person on the school’s grounds when not authorized suffers an injury. Even though this person would be considered a trespasser, the school may be liable under certain circumstances.
  • The parent of an athlete from an opposing wrestling team falls from the bleachers in the high school gym. Which school — if either — had responsibility for his safety?

In any of these scenarios, the school may become a defendant in a lawsuit and argue that it had no responsibility for the safety of the plaintiff.

One of our cases involved an allegation that two students sexually abused a high school girl under the bleachers during a football game. All three students were at the football field to watch the game and were allowed to be there. The plaintiff student had an implied invitation to enter the premises (the football field), and she entered for the purpose of which the invitation was extended (to watch the game). In a situation like this — all parties at a school-sponsored event were authorized to be there — the plaintiff’s attorney would need to show that the school had a duty to the student to take affirmative action to protect her from an unreasonable risk of harm.

While the school is not a guarantor of the student’s safety, it must take an affirmative action in anticipation of foreseeable injury in order to minimize school district liability. The plaintiff must show that the school knew, or should have known, that the dark area under the bleachers amounted to a defective condition, that the risk to the student could be foreseen, and that because of the school’s negligence in not correcting this condition (not illuminating the area), a student could be assaulted in that location. The defendant’s attorney, on the other hand, must show that this area of the bleachers did not constitute a defective condition, that the information known by the school would not give rise to the foreseeability of the plaintiff being sexually assaulted in that location, and that intervening variables served as proximate cause of her injury. An education administration and supervision expert witness would determine whether the school maintained its property in a reasonably safe condition and whether it reasonably supervised its property during the game.

 

Questions That Help to Determine School District Liability and Duty

When attorneys engage our firm’s services to render an opinion as to whether the school bore responsibility in specific circumstances, we review the duty owed to the plaintiff and whether the school acted reasonably, appropriately, and within the professional standard of care. Often, this analysis begins with a determination of whether the plaintiff was authorized to be on the premises (for instance, a student attending class); was invited to be on the premises (for instance, a member of a visiting football team playing a game against the home team); was a licensee by virtue of an agreement with another entity (for instance, an enrollee in a dance school); or whether the person was trespassing. With each of these classifications, a different approach is applied to the analysis of which entity was responsible for protecting the plaintiff from harm and what that responsibility involved.

When developing an opinion in such cases, our expert witness will apply his education, training, and professional experience to answer several questions: Who was the responsible agency? What policies did the agency have in place to protect individuals from harm? Did the agency apply its policies? What training was provided to the staff that was responsible for supervising children, and was the training reasonable? Did the agency meet other required standards, such as those required by licensing agencies? Did the agency vet and supervise individuals who were responsible for the safety of children?
In examining these questions, it can be determined whether the school had a duty to the plaintiff and whether that duty was breached resulting in school district liability.

Title IX and Sexual Violence at Colleges and Universities

sexual violence at universitiesTitle IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program, including in colleges and universities, if those programs or activities associated with the institution receive federal funding. Under Title IX, sex discrimination includes sexual harassment, sexual battery, sexual assault, rape and other sexual violence at school, college or university campuses. Any behavior that disrupts a student’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit constitutes a violation of Title IX. Recent media coverage has brought to light the controversy over the six-month sentence for a former Stanford University student for the rape of a student on campus. There has been outrage over the sentence, and that outrage might be justified, given schools’ responsibilities in similar cases.

The Washington Post reported on June 7, 2016, that nearly 100 colleges and universities had at least 10 reports of sexual violence and rape on their main campuses in 2014, according to federal campus safety data. Brown University and the University of Connecticut tied for the highest annual total — 43 each. In our experience as education administration and supervision and Title IX expert witnesses, many, if not most, sexual offenses against students go unreported to school officials because victims and others who might know of such violations don’t know that their school has a duty to implement Title IX. Colleges and universities are required to develop, publish, and distribute policies against sex discrimination that identify and designate a trained Title IX coordinator, respond promptly to harassment and sexual violence that create a hostile environment, prevent its recurrence and address its effects, provide immediate help for the victim, and conduct an impartial investigation to determine what occurred and take appropriate action. A hostile environment exists when a situation of a discriminatory or sexual nature creates an adverse educational setting, there exists an intimidating or offensive environment that causes a person to; be fearful or there is a setting that denies, limits or interferes with a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from a class, program or activity.

Laws governing schools’ responsibility and how they are to respond to complaints of sexual harassment and abuse are the “hard” elements that are reviewed when answering the question of whether the school acted reasonably within the standard of professional care in a particular circumstance. Schools might have all the appropriate policies in place, but if the culture of the institution doesn’t foster implementation of the standards, then it is not unreasonable to expect that students may be victimized. Victimization occurs first when they are abused, but a second time by the school when the administration fails to provide victim assistance, allows the alleged perpetrator and victim to be together on the same campus, and doesn’t conduct an investigation in a timely manner.

A Brown University spokeswoman told the Post that the university “works very hard to cultivate a culture of forthrightness so this traditionally underreported crime can be addressed and our students receive appropriate services and support.” The concern here is that sexual violence and crimes against students were “traditionally” underreported. One must consider the “tradition” of our educational institutions that encouraged underreporting of such crime. Another spokesman for the university suggested that the relatively high number of incidents at Brown, compared with other universities, is indicative of a culture of openness: “The fact that 43 incidents were reported indicates that we are building trust among our campus community members in how the university responds to reported incidents of sexual and gender-based violence.”

 

Title IX Policies Are Only Effective if Implemented

Many of the cases for which Education Management Consulting, LLC, is engaged to provide consultation and expert witness services require us to review the issues and render an opinion as to whether a high school, college, or university acted reasonably and within the standard of professional care. This is often the heart of the matter when a plaintiff claims that he or she suffered as a result of the school not implementing its own Title IX policies.

In one case, for example, a female college student was sexually assaulted by a basketball player in her dorm room and alleged that for six months following the assault, she was harassed and taunted by students whom the perpetrator told about the violation. Her lawsuit claimed that she was not informed of the college’s Title IX policy, her right to be protected, and how to report the behavior against her. A representative of the school knew of the assault, yet there was no report of it to any school official or the police. Because there was no report the school, authorities were not aware and had no reason to investigate. The school argued that because it had no actual knowledge of the violation, it had no responsibility for the continued harassment of the student.

Our review indicated that the school had very good policies, but those policies were not effectively transmitted to its students and staff. Very few students knew that there was a person on campus designated to enforce Title IX and did not know how to report violations on campus. When students do not understand their right to be protected from sex-based harassment, abuse, and  sexual violence, when school authorities fail to take seriously their duty to protect students from the harms of such behavior, and when violators are allowed to continue such behavior, our schools are letting down the very people they are meant to enrich and educate.

Colleges and universities, as well as elementary, middle, and high schools, exist — or should exist — for their students. Creating a climate in which students are able to learn and reach their academic, social, and emotional potential is — or should be — the primary goal of the school. Students can’t learn in a climate that allows or encourages offensive student behavior. Schools have a duty to be proactive in ensuring that they are free of sex discrimination, including harassment and a hostile school environment related to sexual violence.

 

Title IX Compliance Checklist for Colleges, Universities and Public Schools

Colleges and universities can argue that they are in compliance with Title IX if they can demonstrate that they:

  • Employ a Title IX coordinator who is properly trained to investigate and resolve cases and is involved in all incidents of sexual violence, harassment, and discrimination;
  • Do not act with deliberate indifference to a report of an incident and take immediate action to educate the student body and staff to prevent similar incidents from repeating;
  • Take immediate action to prevent the development of a hostile environment and eliminate the potential for retaliation and/or harassment by suspending or removing the accused while an investigation is pending;
  • Fully investigate under a Title IX coordinator and take appropriate action, even if there is a campus or community police investigation pending or taking place at the same time;
  • Do not use mediation as a tool to resolve cases of sexual harassment or sexual violence and avoid placing the burden on the victim;
  • Use the preponderance-of-evidence standard and stick to timelines for hearings and administrative action;
  • Are proactive in training faculty, staff, and students regarding sexual violence, sexual harassment and discrimination, in order to create a positive learning environment regardless of whether there is a complaint;
  • Offer and provide counseling services, regardless of whether the alleged victim wishes to file or formalize a complaint: and,
  • Widely publicize the school’s policy, provide adequate training to student body and staff, and ensure that policy is consistently implemented.

Schools are required to take immediate steps to address incidents of sexual violence and/or harassment and prevent it from affecting students further. Schools may not discourage victims who do report incidents from continuing their education. Student victims have the right to remain at school and participate in every educational opportunity available to them. It is the school’s responsibility to adequately respond to incidents and implement policies and procedures that protect student victims from further harm.

 

Off-campus Sexual Violence Incidents and Hostile School Environment Under Title IX

A hostile school environment can develop whether an incident took place on or off campus. Sexual harassment and sexual violence and abuse between students on a school-sponsored trip or at a school-sponsored event, or even outside of school between students are cause for the school to implement appropriate policies. For example, an act of sexual harassment might occur between students of the same high school at a weekend party. Initially, it may be considered that because this happened off campus, school policy and Title IX do not apply. However, if one student rapes another, and if students are aware of it and talk about it in school, this can create a hostile environment for the victim.

When a school receives such a report and fails to take action to end bullying, intimidation, or other negative behaviors against the victim, the school may be in violation of Title IX. In one case for which we were engaged, the school had knowledge that two male students sexually assaulted a female student off campus. Weeks passed and the school did not take any action to end the behavior of other students who harassed and intimidated this girl in the aftermath of the incident. It was my opinion, after reviewing the facts, that the student endured a hostile school environment created by the bullying of her classmates.

Schools must have an established procedure for handling complaints of sexual violence and harassment. When a complaint is received, the school must promptly investigate regardless of whether the complaint was reported to the police. Though a police investigation may very briefly delay the school’s investigation, schools are not allowed to wait for the conclusion of a police investigation and criminal proceedings and must conclude their own investigations in a timely manner. 2011 Office for Civil Rights Title IX guidance indicates that 60 days is an appropriate length of time to complete an investigation.

Courts have established that school districts are liable under Title IX if they fail to take effective action. Lack of an appropriate investigation, a Title IX coordinator’s lack of involvement, and lack of remedial action constitute deliberate indifference. Schools are required to use a “preponderance-of-the-evidence” standard to reach their conclusions, meaning discipline should result if it is more likely than not that discrimination, harassment, and/or violence occurred.

The federal government sets civil rights standards. If schools don’t take human rights, civil rights, and personal rights seriously and realize that they are the institutions charged with guarding these rights, then we will continue to be engaged by attorneys representing plaintiffs who claim they were not protected by their schools and by defendants who argue they were never told of any problems that make them accountable for the harassment of a student.

Title IX and Sexual Abuse in K – 12 Schools

Hostile School EnviromentAs difficult as it might be to accept and understand, abuse of children is occurring at an alarming rate in our nation’s schools, daycare centers, camps, and other institutions. Even with state laws that require child abuse reporting and institutional policies that address sexual abuse prevention, identification, and reporting, abuse is not going away. More civil lawsuits are filed with each passing year, and schools and other organizations are not always appropriately responding to this epidemic.

At a school or any institution responsible for protecting the safety of children, the existence of a policy isn’t enough. It is evident from my involvement in such cases that when schools have adequate policies that are living documents — supplemented by training and a culture where all reports and rumors are taken seriously —children tend to be better protected. Children are more frequently harmed in a climate where reports of sexual abuse are discouraged, rumors are not taken seriously, and staff training is lacking.

According to a 2014 federal report, U.S. schools are failing to protect students from sexual abuse, and instances of district cover-ups, lack of staff training, and incomplete teacher background checks are not uncommon. The U.S. Government Accountability Office determined that K–12 schools lack a systemic approach to preventing and reporting sexual abuse of students, despite longstanding evidence of widespread sexual abuse at the hands of educators. A previous federal report had estimated that 9.6 percent of students are sexually abused by school personnel.  A school district may be liable for damages under Title IX if it fails to take action to stop known sexual abuse and harassment.

 

Appropriate and Immediate Response Is Critical

Based on my experience as an expert witness in school and institution administration, virtually every school district in the United States and Canada is, at some point, likely to hear rumors or receive a complaint about the sexual abuse of a child by a staff member. The safety of children depends on several elements. One such element is an adequate response by the administration, including prompt and adequate investigation and taking appropriate action to protect children from harm.

The professional standard of care requires that those responsible for the safety of children respond appropriately when there is an observation, report, or rumor of inappropriate sexual behavior between an adult and a child in a school. For example, when a librarian sees a teacher kissing a student in the gym, the librarian’s observation provides clear notice that the teacher is breaching the professional code of conduct and school policy. Any reasonable staff member would also conclude that it is more likely than not that the teacher and student are engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship. The librarian’s responsibility would be to report the observation immediately to her supervisor, usually the building principal, and to report the behavior to the state agency that investigates allegations of child abuse.

Likewise, any observation, report, or rumor that children in school may be engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with each other warrants an immediate response to protect children from harm. In some circumstances, student-on-student sexual behavior will be considered typical depending on the age of the children. For example, two 5-year-olds may expose themselves to each other with no intention of sexual abuse. On the other hand, if a vulnerable child with a disability is sexually touched by a nondisabled child of the same age, it might be considered abuse because of the imbalance of power between the two children. This also might be true when a much older child is sexually active with a younger child. Age, in this situation, creates the imbalance of power.

 

Supreme Court cases defining Title IX liability Following Sexual Abuse

In Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, (524 U.S. 274 (1998)), the U.S. Supreme Court established standards for school district liability under Title IX when a sexual relationship occurs between a teacher and a student. The court found that a school district will not be liable unless: (1) an appropriate school official has actual knowledge of discrimination; (2) the school official has authority to take corrective action to address the alleged discrimination: (3) the school official fails to adequately respond; and (4) the inadequate response amounts to deliberate indifference.

In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, (526 U.S. 629, 119 S.Ct. 1661, 143 L.Ed.2d 839 (1999)), the Supreme Court established that a school district may be liable for damages under Title IX if it fails to take action to stop known student-on-student harassment. In Davis, the alleged conduct of the perpetrator student was outrageous, and despite repeated complaints of sexual harassment over five months, the student was not disciplined. In fact, the victim was not even allowed to change classes to escape the harassment of her classmate. Moreover, the board of education had not instructed its personnel on how to respond to peer harassment and had not established a policy on the issue.

Actual notice. Since the Davis decision, there has been a pattern of cases granting summary judgment to school districts on the basis of insufficient evidence of actual notice. However, the issue of what constitutes sufficient notice to the school is not yet settled. For example, in Doe v. School Administration District N. 19 (66 F. Supp. 2d 57 (D. Me. 1999)), it was found that the school had sufficient notice when a substitute teacher met with the principal to report that a female teacher “might be” having a sexual relationship with at least one male student. The principal allegedly told the substitute that she could be “sued for slander for saying those things” and declined to investigate. The court believed this verbal notice was sufficient where the alleged sexual misconduct was severe and where the school community was small (the high school’s faculty numbered 15). From the substitute teacher’s report, the administrator had a duty to conduct a sufficient investigation and, likely, to file a report with the appropriate child protective service in the state as well.

Insufficient notice was found in Turner v. McQuarter (79 F. Supp. 2d 911 (N.D. Ill. 1999)) where a female basketball player claimed to have been coerced into a sexual relationship with a female coach. Because the student and coach had the same home address, the plaintiff alleged that the university’s athletic director knew of the relationship. A district court concluded that it was difficult to imagine under what circumstances the identical addresses would have come to the attention of school officials. In this case, the court determined that unless there is sufficient notice or a report that a sexual relationship was taking place and that the coach and student resided at the same address, it would have been unlikely that the school would have found out on its own.

Deliberate indifference. The adequacy of a school or institution’s response once the appropriate officials have actual notice also has been examined. For example, in Kinman v. Omaha Public School District (171 F.3d 607 (8th Cir. 1999)), the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found that prompt investigation, corrective action, and ultimate termination was a sufficient response by a school district in response to allegations of a sexual relationship between a teacher and a student. After the student graduated, the relationship resumed, and the teacher was terminated for violating the district’s policy that prohibited teachers from engaging in sexual relationships with former students within two years of graduation. The court dismissed the Title IX claim.

How various courts respond to the issue of deliberate indifference is illustrated by Flores v. Saulpaugh (115 F. Supp. 2d 319 (N.D. N.Y. 2000)). A student’s petition survived the school district’s motion for summary judgment because a fact issue existed regarding the administrator’s response to the student’s complaints. In this case, the student and her parent complained to the principal of a teacher’s suggestive behavior toward the student. The principal promised to investigate the matter but did not do so, nor did he notify the Title IX coordinator of the complaint. Harassment, according to the student, continued for about a year after the complaint. In this matter, the court found a fact issue regarding the alleged indifference of the principal’s response. The court found that the principal had actual notice, effective at the time the student and her parent made their complaint. The principal also had corrective authority over the teacher. The court ruled that failure to investigate and to notify the Title IX coordinator constituted deliberate indifference, and the continued inappropriate behavior of the teacher may have caused harm to the student.

 

Rumors and Suspicions of Child Sexual Abuse are Enough to Warrant Action

How should a school respond to rumors of an inappropriate relationship between a child in its care and a staff member? Is a rumor sufficient to be considered notice? Schools can be sidetracked by the “logistics” of the rumor mill, short-circuiting a thorough investigation of what may, in fact, be an actual abusive relationship. For example, when a school principal knows that students are talking about a sexual relationship between a teacher and a student and are saying that the teacher and student have been texting and sending pictures to one another, the school must take these rumors seriously. Taking them seriously — that is, focusing on the alleged behavior as the genesis of the rumors rather than focusing on the way students are communicating (the logistics) — is key. I have seen too many situations where rumors were considered not credible — brushed off as children bullying each other — while an inappropriate relationship went on. It is important that reports of this nature are made to the state child protective agency so that specially trained and experienced individuals can conduct a thorough investigation. School officials are not trained to make a determination as to whether an allegation of sexual misconduct is substantiated or to determine that rumors can be dismissed.

In my practice, I have reviewed and analyzed the issues in numerous civil lawsuits as to whether a school or other agency met the professional standard of care in responding to rumors of sexual abuse. One of these cases involved the Texas City Independent School District in 2004. The district was accused of a breach in the professional standard of care, resulting in the sexual abuse of a preschool child by a classroom aide. This female student, because of her gender, was discriminated against when she was sexually abused. This was cause for a federal lawsuit under Title IX.

As the expert witness, I reviewed the case material, including sworn depositions, policies of the school district, records of the student, and information about the classroom teacher and aide. I determined that the teacher was not trained in the prevention, detection, and reporting of child abuse, including sexual abuse; the aide was hired without a proper background check and was not trained; the teacher allowed the male aide to supervise “bathroom time” with this girl, who had a disability, and the teacher wasn’t there to supervise. Another instructional aide in the class admitted having observed physical evidence that caused her to believe that the child was being sexually abused, but she failed to notify anyone about it and the abuse continued.

Although there was a policy in the school that addressed sexual abuse and reporting requirements, it was not implemented. Training was insufficient or nonexistent. The aide did not know how to report her concern. She did not know that she had a duty to report her observations to state child protective services and to the school administrator. The abuse continued until another professional also became concerned, at which time the matter was reported, investigated, and the aide was arrested. It was my opinion that this breach of the professional standard of care was a proximate cause of the girl’s abuse. Adequate training and supervision, in my opinion, would have prevented abuse of this child.

 

Summary
Sexual abuse of students is tragic, and its rate of occurrence is unacceptable. Schools and other institutions have a responsibility to protect the children in its care. Beyond policies, a culture of training, supervision, and adequate follow-through on reports of abuse against students is a proactive strategy for reducing the potential for harm to children.

School Safety and Security: Responding to Terroristic Threats

student secuirty

In the wake of recent incidences of gun violence, school safety and security has become an increasingly pressing concern in the United States and Canada. Schools, summer camps, daycare centers, and other agencies charged with the safety of children have a duty to protect them, and their ability to do so depends on solid policies, training, and appropriate response to security threats. Laws, regulations, and internal policies designed to shield children from harm may be developed proactively in response to a risk assessment or reactively in response to an event that caused injury to a child. Both are valid options in today’s climate of terroristic threats to school safety and security. Inaction is not. Schools and other child-centered programs must consider and develop appropriate responses to this new dynamic.

Schools generally respond to terroristic threats quickly and decisively, but examples suggest that, at times, responses might not be sufficient based on the level of risk to school safety and security. In December 2015 — two weeks after 14 people were murdered nearby in a San Bernardino, Calif. center for people with developmental disabilities — the Los Angeles Unified School District responded to an e-mail threat to students by closing more than 1,000 schools for a day. At about the same time, New York City officials acknowledged having received a similar threat, but considered it so “outlandish” that they dismissed it as a hoax. As it turned out, nothing did occur in L.A. and the students were safe. New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton accused his Los Angeles counterparts of overreacting, but the question remains: What if the threat had been credible and the school had failed to act?

The incidences in New York and Los Angeles are not isolated to large American cities. In November 2015, authorities in Canada — a country that prides itself on its low crime rate — reacted to the latest in a rash of e-mailed threats by closing 71 schools in Quebec and Ottawa. Nothing was found in any of those searches, either. “Notwithstanding the fact that these threats seem to be unfounded, they are taken very seriously by police and will be the subject of an investigation,” police in Quebec said.

Taking action in response to these threats, which met the provincial definition of a terrorist act, is the right thing to do. Ignoring or making light of any terroristic threat places students and teachers at risk.

 

Appropriate Response to School Safety and Security Threats

The standard of professional care and legal standards for determining what constitutes a credible threat are contradictory and confusing. Until the U.S. Supreme Court defines a common standard, various contradictory lower court opinions will persist. With no clear standard of what constitutes a credible threat to school safety and security or how a school or other agency should respond to one, personnel must take all terroristic threats or suspected threats seriously.

States and provinces have definitions of what constitutes a terroristic threat, and these definitions may fit in the context of schools as well. For example, Pennsylvania law defines a terroristic threat as a threat to commit violence with intent to terrorize another person, to cause evacuation of a building, or to cause serious public inconvenience with reckless disregard for the risk of doing so. In the school context, a warning of a mass shooting that prompts a school evacuation and disrupts education constitutes a terroristic threat under Pennsylvania law, and in response, action can be taken against the perpetrator.

In addition to state and provincial laws, other resources provide guidance for schools:

  • In its 1999 report, “The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective,” the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group recommended that schools adopt threat-response policies based on three tiers: low-level threats carrying a minimal risk; medium-level threats, which could possibly be carried out but are not entirely realistic; and high-level threats that pose a serious and imminent danger. The report provides guidance for categorizing threats into each tier.
  • A 2004 report by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Secret Service, “The Final Report and Findings of the Safe Schools Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of Attacks in the United States,” suggests that there are productive actions that educators and others can pursue in response to the problem of targeted school violence and terrorism.
  • Another 2004 publication from the Department of Education and Secret Service, “Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates,” builds on the previous report. It sets forth a process, known as threat assessment, for managing students who may pose a threat.

The latter two reports stress that school shootings are rarely impulsive acts. The shooters told other students (though not the victims) about their plans in advance of their actions, but the other students did not tell adults. Telling others constituted a terroristic threat, but in many cases the students who knew of the threat failed to act. They did not report the threat to a school official who might have been able to intervene to prevent the compromise to school safety and security.

Perhaps these students did not know how to respond. Schools should provide training to staff, students, and parents and incorporate a definition of terroristic threat in the student code of conduct, the school security policy, and information that goes home to parents. Information from the school should clearly specify how a student, staff member, or someone from the community is to report threat information to a school official and how the official should respond. A good example is the policy of the School District of Philadelphia regarding terroristic threats. After defining a terroristic threat, Philadelphia’s policy states that:

  • Staff members and students shall be made aware of their responsibility for informing the building principal about any knowledge relevant to a possible or actual terroristic threat.
  • The building principal shall immediately call 911 and follow the district’s crisis plan after receiving a report of such a threat.
  • The principal shall react promptly to this information and knowledge, in compliance with state laws, regulations, and procedures established with local law enforcement.

 

School Safety and Security Threats Require Swift and Decisive Action

Sometimes there is no obvious threat, yet a terroristic act takes place. Depending on circumstances, the school might not be held responsible. For example, in a case in which I was engaged as the expert witness, a woman came through the front door of an elementary school with what she said was her nephew’s lunch in a brown bag. She asked the school secretary if she could take it to her nephew’s classroom. The secretary, who knew the woman, agreed. The woman went to the first-grade classroom, walked through the door, and greeted the teacher, “Good morning, Ms. Miller.” She then reached into the “lunch” bag, pulled out a revolver, and shot and killed the teacher in front of 24 children. Is it necessary to search every person who comes into a school, is known by staff, is the parent or aunt of a student, and who says she is there to bring a forgotten lunch to a child?

The answer is, “No.” In this case, it was my opinion that the school acted appropriately and reasonably under the circumstances. In this suburban community, there was no undue concern about a threat to the safety of the children in the school from outside sources. There was no announcement of a terroristic threat — the person entering the school did not say she was there to shoot a teacher. The secretary did not see a weapon, and she had no reason to believe the woman meant any harm. The woman was “screened” when she came into the school — she was known, she showed her license, signed in, and stated what was determined to be a legitimate reason for being there. Should the secretary have called the student to the office to pick up his “lunch?” Should the secretary have taken the “lunch” to the student? She would have noticed that the bag was too heavy for a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. But these thoughts come to mind after a tragedy like this. Can we do better in some situations? Yes, but this school, in my opinion, did nothing wrong. This terrible tragedy was sparked by a neighborhood spat. It is unfortunate that it ended with devastating consequences for 24 children.

There may be other, more obvious, situations that call to task the decision making of school personnel. One such example occurred in Texas, when a man approached a greeter in the school hallway and told her: “I am a gunman. My target is inside of the building. I’m going in the building. You stop me.” The principal did not call 911 because the man was immediately recognized as a parent and school volunteer. It appeared as if he had no weapon, and the school simply asked the man to leave. He did.

After this incident — which occurred less than a year after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School — some parents felt that the school should have treated it more seriously. Though the man told police he was testing the school’s security response, he was later charged with making terroristic threats. The charge was appropriate, but was the school’s response reasonable? Even though the greeter at the front door recognized the man as a parent and trusted him, could he have carried out his threat? Yes, he could have. The duty of the school is to protect the students. Whenever there is any terroristic threat or reasonable suspicion of a threat, the school must act swiftly and decisively.

Closing school and depriving students of a day or so of their education, if it assures their safety, is worth the effort and is appropriate. Not having a clear policy, failing to train staff, and not addressing terroristic threats that might place students and staff in harm’s way can result in injury or death — and costly civil litigation from the harmed party. The best practice is always to place the protection of children and the wider school community at the top of the list. After all, learning can’t take place if children and staff don’t feel safe.
Schools should review state and provincial laws, agreements with law enforcement agencies, and other resources. Review existing school or program policies and procedures for responding to a terroristic threat. Inform and train students and staff about both the policy and what constitutes a terroristic threat, and if one occurs, carry out procedures decisively. Treating seriously any potentially deadly threat to a school or its inhabitants and involving the authorities without debating its credibility is the best course of action in regards to school safety and security.

Applying and Piercing Governmental Immunity in School Liability Cases

Governmental Immunity in School Liability CasesWhen a student personal injury in a public school triggers litigation, plaintiff and defendant attorneys must address the concept of governmental immunity. In general, governmental immunity shields public schools from tort litigation and liability. Governmental immunity is not universally applicable, however, depending on how the facts of a specific case accord with state or provincial laws. This article is about how governmental immunity in public school cases might be pierced and how schools can determine whether governmental immunity applies in school liability cases.

 

In the United States, state laws vary considerably on the question of governmental immunity for tort liability. Common law has driven legislative initiatives, often in response to a trending issue, that strengthen or erode governmental immunity protection. In Canada, by contrast, tort liability of the government is relatively new and is statute-based. In Canada, the Crown Liability Act leaves the “Crown” liable in tort as an individual would be.

 

Variation in U.S. laws results in differing levels of school immunity from state to state. Eleven states[1] allow suits regarding nondiscretionary functions only; 39 states, including the District of Columbia, provide for discretionary action as an exception to the general rule of liability. Some states protect schools from liability for the tort of negligent hiring or retention of staff. Some permit suits only for personal injury or death or only for dangerous property conditions. A few states generally allow tort suits against teachers only for “willful and wanton” misconduct. Some states limit dollar amounts that may be collected.

School Liability Immunity in the context of Discretionary Judgment and Dangerous Conditions

Governmental immunity is the most frequent defense in tort cases. Before considering whether governmental immunity applies, the questions of school liability — such as duty of care, breach of duty, and proximate causation — should be addressed. Attorneys should carefully review and analyze the circumstances surrounding student injury leading to a tort claim. Consider two examples: a teacher who tutors a student alone in her classroom with the door closed and a teacher who continues to use equipment that has been recalled for safety reasons. The immediate relevant questions in both examples are: Did the school have actual notice, or should it have known, of a situation that a reasonable school administrator would agree could place a student in harm’s way? Under the circumstances, did the school act reasonably, appropriately, and within the professional standard of care to protect students from harm?

In the first example, if the school maintains a policy that no teacher is allowed to be alone with a student in a classroom, yet it is known that the teacher is tutoring a student one-on-one in her classroom behind a closed door, did the administrator follow up by correcting the teacher and noting the violation in her personnel file? In the second example, did the school continue to use a table saw with a missing blade guard, or did the teacher take it out of use and arrange for its repair? Ignoring red flags may lead to the potential for student sexual abuse in the first example and serious student personal injury in the second. In some states, governmental immunity may not apply to these examples.

Because negligent acts are often the result of discretionary judgment on the part of a school, the question of whether an act (or failure to act) was discretionary is of major importance in states granting school immunity for discretionary acts. Discretionary acts in school setting generally involve planning, goal setting, evaluation, and the exercise of judgment.

As an example, federal and state laws require schools to identify students with disabilities and engage in a process that leads to the development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP is a written document that specifies “contractual” agreements about services to be provided to the student. For a student with a physical disability, one such provision might be an aide to help the student safely negotiate school hallways and protect her from injury on the playground. In one case, the aide did not show up for work on a day the student attempted to negotiate a crowded stairway. She fell and sustained an injury, causing permanent scarring to her face from lacerations. She sued the school, claiming negligent student supervision. The school invoked immunity, saying the act of providing the aide was discretionary. Determining whether this truly was a discretionary act, however, is the key as to whether immunity applies in this type of case.

As a school administration expert witness, when I review and analyze a case like this, I determine the professional standard of care under the circumstances and whether the school, through its administration and/or other employees, acted reasonably, appropriately, and met that standard. Was the requirement for an aide to assist the student reasonable and appropriate? The school had determined that the aide was necessary for the student to have safe access to her education. Does this place a nondiscretionary component into the analysis? If there is no discretion or flexibility when it comes to providing the aide, and on this day no aide was there, did the school breach a mandatory standard — perhaps removing the protection of governmental immunity?

In another example, a principal allegedly knew that a music teacher had sexually abused a student in an after-school program. Instead of taking appropriate action by reporting the incident to child protective services and separating the teacher from students, the principal simply transferred the teacher to another school. At the new school, the teacher continued his behavior with a different student until it was reported to police. It may be argued that the proximate cause of the second student’s sexual abuse was the principal’s gross negligence in his decision making.

In a state that allows level of negligence to determine whether governmental immunity can be invoked, the plaintiff may prevail. However, if there was no knowledge of the teacher’s behavior before his transfer, then the school would have had no duty to protect students from harm and would likely prevail under the doctrine of governmental immunity.

 

School Immunity and Premises Liability

A proximate cause of student injury in schools may be failure on the part of the administration or other employees who are charged with a ministerial duty. In contrast to discretionary acts, a ministerial duty is a responsibility to conform to federal, state, or local statutes or to policies and procedures a school has set. Determining the elements of a policy and enacting the policy may be discretionary acts, while the responsibility to carry them out is a ministerial school duty.

If a student is injured by equipment that violates safety standards or is not maintained according to the manufacturer’s specifications, courts must decide whether the general legislative policy of promoting student safety should prevail by imposing tort liability, or whether the doctrine of immunizing the school from exposure to tort suits should prevail. Many courts favor public policy governing safety and impose liability on school districts, thus piercing governmental immunity.

Some jurisdictions recognize claims of failure to keep school premises in a safe condition, permitting recovery from schools for maintaining a nuisance. Maintaining a nuisance seems to be recognized as an exception to the general rule of immunity. Some courts have determined that if school officials mismanage school property, they are liable for damages because of that mismanagement.

As an example, in the corner of a third-grade classroom, a teacher set up a “reading lounge.” During afternoon reading time, six children crowded into the area to see the new books the teacher put out. Three students sat together on a desk that collapsed, seriously injuring a child. The teacher knew the desk was broken and had reported it to the custodian, expecting that it would be taken from her room for repair. Yet she did not prevent students from continuing to use it, leading to injury. Did the school have a duty to take the desk out of service, foreseeing that a student could become injured if it remained in the classroom? If it can be shown the teacher acted grossly negligent by failing to assure the desk was repaired and that this was the proximate cause of the student’s injury, then in some states this may be considered “maintaining a nuisance” and the school may not be shielded by governmental immunity.

Playground injuries are often addressed in the context of governmental immunity. In one example, the playground in a school for students with disabilities was fenced. The latch on the fence gate had been broken for weeks, and though this had been reported to the principal when it first broke, no action was taken to repair it. A student left the playground through the defective gate, running into the street and being struck by a car resulting in a wrongful death claim. This school may not be able to stand behind governmental immunity if it can be successfully argued that the school had a ministerial duty to assure the gate operated correctly to protect students from harm. On the other hand, if the attorney for the school convinces a trier of fact that installing a fence with a gate in that location and repairing the gate is discretionary, the school may prevail.

Even if the school argues that these activities are discretionary, an expert witness working on a case like this would review and analyze issues, policies, and actions that may have been a proximate cause of injury to a student. As an example, if I were to render an opinion that, because of the level of disability students at this school, the administration had a higher-than-average duty to protect them from harm — coupled with the facts that the school board conducted a safety audit of the grounds, identified the necessity of a fence and gate to protect student safety, and enacted a well-understood policy that the gate remain closed when students are on the playground but the gate latch went unrepaired for weeks — I would likely determine that failure to repair the latch in a timely manner was neither reasonable nor a discretionary act, and therefore governmental immunity would not be applicable and school liability for student wrongful death would stand. The inoperable gate created a situation that otherwise would not have existed. By applying my experience and qualifications, I assess duty to protect, whether the school’s action or inaction was reasonable and appropriate, and whether it was a proximate cause of injury or death. A careful review and analysis of the facts from the perspective of a reasonable school administrator will help to determine if the school’s actions or inactions led to injury.

 

Summary

Because it varies significantly by state and its provision is influenced by individual circumstances, governmental immunity is something of an elusive standard. Assessing a public school’s duty to provide for the health, safety, and welfare of its students and determining how well it fulfilled or failed to fulfill that duty from the perspective of a reasonable school administrator provides the starting point for determining whether school immunity will prevail. This determination and analysis of applications of governmental immunity can either be used as a school defense against liability, or as a way of piercing governmental immunity by plaintiffs.

[1] Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, and New Mexico do not address discretionary actions as potential exceptions to governmental immunity in school liability cases.

Campus Sexual Assault and Harassment Lawsuits: Title IX Standards and Questions of Liability

Campus Sexual Violence

When students are sexually assaulted or harassed, they are deprived of equal and free access to an education.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to college and university administrators about implementation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 in regards to campus sexual assault cases. Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs or activities in schools that receive federal funding. The letter explains that schools are required to develop and distribute policies regarding sexual harassment, designate a Title IX coordinator to oversee the school’s duties, train staff and students in sexual harassment and violence issues, and establish an investigation procedure and an adjudication process. The letter did not articulate specific procedural safeguards, rules for the examination of evidence, or guidelines for the conduct of adjudication or hearing processes for cases of campus sexual violence.

This lack of specificity allowed colleges and universities to develop and implement their own procedures, which vary widely from campus to campus. As a result, some schools have implemented procedures that, however well intended, may ultimately be judged as arbitrary and capricious — opening the gate for lawsuits from either an alleged victim who may feel that he or she was not adequately heard or from an accused individual who feels unjustly punished. In the end, determination of the believability of the alleged victim and the punishment of the accused is in the hands of school officials.

Title IX Standards and Campus Sexual Assault Liability

Campus sexual assault and violence in higher education institutions is a pressing civil rights issue. When students are sexually assaulted or harassed, they are deprived of equal and free access to an education. It is also a matter of law; sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX.

A report of student-on-student sexual harassment on campus is not enough to demonstrate a Title IX violation. The school’s actions in response to a complaint are key to a school’s liability. Federal courts have held that there is no violation of civil rights laws if harassment occurs, as long as the school investigates an allegation in good faith. Disputes often rest on this question. In a recent article, I discussed Title IX as it applies to elementary and secondary schools. In this article, I reinforce that Title IX is also applicable to colleges and universities that accept federal funding, and that its misapplication can result in a lawsuit against the school.

Critical Elements of a Title IX Lawsuit Applied to Campus Sexual Assault Cases

A Title IX lawsuit  will focus on the college’s handling of sexual misconduct, complaints, investigations, and training of staff. As an example, in J.K. v. Arizona Board of Regents, a federal court in 2008 rejected Arizona State University’s argument that it was not responsible under Title IX when a campus athlete raped a student, even though ASU had previously expelled the athlete for severe sexual harassment of multiple other women on campus. Under the settlement, ASU awarded the plaintiff $850,000 and agreed to appoint a student safety coordinator to review and reform policies for reporting and investigating incidents of sexual harassment and assault. In a 2006 case, Simpson v. University of Colorado, a federal court found that there was sufficient evidence to suggest that the university acted with deliberate indifference toward two students who were sexually assaulted by student football players and recruits. In settling the case, the university agreed to hire a new counselor for the Office of Victim’s Assistance, appoint an independent Title IX advisor, and pay $2.5 million in damages.

Implementation of Professional Standards

A July 12 New York Times article, “Reporting Rape, and Wishing She Hadn’t: How One College Handled a Sexual Assault Complaint,” illustrates what can go wrong when schools fail to adhere to professional standards, don’t train staff, or in appropriately investigate a complaint.

Professional standards include implementation of federal and state statutes, regulations and advisories, and institutional policies, as well as explicit and implicit contracts and the reasonable administrator standard (whether a reasonable administrator agree that the college or university had a duty to act in a certain way under the circumstance). College policies must adequately reflect these standards. School officials’ conduct must be consistent with good policy.

The question of whether a college or university met the professional standard of care is determined by answering the question: “Did the school, through its administration and/or other employees, act appropriately and reasonably under the circumstance?”

The question of appropriateness is answered by reviewing the professional standards and comparing them against the school’s actions. As an example, the federal standard (34 CFR §106.8[b]) requires a college or university to adopt and publish grievance procedures providing for prompt and equitable resolution of complaints. Did the school adopt and publish a grievance procedure? Did it provide for prompt and equitable resolution of a complaint?

The question of reasonableness is answered by analyzing the facts as gleaned through a review of such documents as the grievance report, police reports, transcripts of the disciplinary hearing, and training documents. Did the school act promptly once it knew or had reason to believe that a student was sexually harassed or assaulted? Did the school provide an equitable resolution to the complaint of campus sexual assault? Was the process of investigation thorough and fair to all parties? Was the disciplinary hearing impartial, unbiased, and evenhanded?

Inadequate Due Process in Cases of Campus Sexual Violence

In the Times article, reporter Walt Bogdanich described the plight of an 18-year-old freshman on the campus of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in central New York. In describing the process followed by the school, Bogdanich demonstrated — and I agree — that the school was ill prepared to evaluate an allegation of a campus sexual assault. I also agree with the reporter’s assertion that this case illustrates how school disciplinary panels are “a world unto themselves, operating in secret with scant accountability and limited protections for the accuser or the accused.”

In this case, three football players were accused of sexually assaulting the freshman at a party. Later the same night, a friend found the student in another location on campus, arriving to see one of the athletes raping her. No one, including the victim and the student who observed the assault, initially reported the behavior. Because the school had no actual knowledge of this behavior, it had no duty to act at that time.

The Title IX standard is that if a school knows or reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment or abuse, the school must take immediate action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects.*  Shortly after this incident, the student reported events to campus security. Security completed a report, and the college disciplinary committee convened to determine the believability of the victim, witnesses, and alleged assailant and to dole out discipline.

The college investigated the campus sexual assault report, held a hearing, and cleared those allegedly responsible in a space of 12 days. Even though one might praise the school for acting swiftly, a closer look must be given to the process of the review and training of those making the decision.

The “Dear Colleague” letter mentioned previously clearly sets the standard: The school’s inquiry must in all cases be prompt, thorough, and impartial. The three elements — prompt, thorough, and impartial — should be executed in the context of the professional standard of care. In this case, the investigation was prompt. But I would argue it was not thorough and impartial.

A three-member panel convened behind closed doors to adjudicate the student’s complaint. According to the Times, the panelists “acted as prosecutor, judge, and jury, questioning students and rendering judgment.”

There is no evidence in the record, the Times reported, that those sitting on the panel were trained in sexual harassment and abuse issues. The victim’s attorney scoffed at the “absurdity” of the questions asked during the review by one panelist, who asked the witness whether he had seen the accused student’s penis in the victim’s vagina or if he had just seen them having sex. Any reasonable school employee who is appropriately trained to participate in such a panel would agree that this question demonstrates lack of training — implying a breach of the professional standard of care.

Members are supposed to be trained for this type of assignment. Indeed, OCR states that training for administrators, teachers, staff, and students can help to ensure that they understand what types of conduct constitute sexual harassment or violence, identify warning signals that may need attention, and know how to respond.

According to OCR, all persons involved in implementing grievance procedures, including investigators and adjudicators, must have training or experience in handling complaints of sexual harassment and violence as well as knowledge of the school’s grievance procedures. In sexual violence cases, the fact finder and decision maker also should have commensurate training or knowledge about sexual violence. For instance, if an investigation or hearing involves forensic evidence, that evidence should be reviewed by a trained forensic examiner.

Summary

If a college has appropriate policies, adequately distributes those policies, appropriately trains its staff to investigate complaints of campus sexual assault or harassment, and conducts an unbiased hearing, then there is little an alleged victim can present if he or she disagrees with the decision of the disciplinary panel. If, on the other hand, the facts demonstrate that policies were nonexistent, not representative of the professional standard of care, or not adequately distributed to staff and students, or that those sitting on the panel were inadequately trained and the hearing was conducted contrary to the professional standard of care, then the victim or the perpetrator might present a convincing argument for appealing a panel’s decision.

In this case, the school may have failed to meet the professional standard of care. If it happened at this school, it is likely happening at colleges and universities around the country. That failure can leave schools liable for incidents involving campus sexual assault and harassment, and can result in expensive lawsuits and settlements.

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*This is the standard for administrative enforcement of Title IX and in court cases where plaintiffs are seeking injunctive relief.  The standard in private lawsuits for monetary damages is actual knowledge and deliberate indifference. See Davis v. Monroe Cnty. Bd. Of Ed., 526 U.S. 629, 648 (1999).