December 15, 2017

Professional Standard of Care in Past Cases of Child Sexual Abuse in Public and Private Schools

school sexual abuseStandard of care is a general expression of what constitutes care in professions such as medicine, nursing, education, or child care administration. In schools and other agencies responsible for the care and supervision of children, the professional standard of care is the ethical or legal responsibility of a professional to exercise the level of care, diligence, and skill that other professionals in the same discipline would apply in the same or similar circumstances. This, coupled with statutory requirements and case law, defines the care that an educational professional is responsible for providing to children which includes protection from child sexual abuse.

In the field of education administration and supervision, as in most professions, the standard of care changes over time. The standard regarding what constitutes sexual harassment and child sexual abuse has evolved over decades. At times, our firm is asked to review a case that took place a couple of decades ago or even longer. When addressing the question of whether a school or other child-related agency met the professional standard of care, we must determine what the accepted standard and practice was at that time of the alleged child sexual abuse or other harmful incident.

 

Evolution of the Standard of Care Regarding Sexual Harassment and Child Sexual Abuse

The current standard of care requires that a public or private school has clear policies prohibiting sexual harassment, that such a policy identifies a trained person to be notified with a complaint, and that it outlines and documents the investigative process and the results of the investigation. Before Title IX became law in 1972 and the Office of Civil Rights published declarative information to school administrators, standards of care varied. If an incident of sexual harassment or abuse occurred in 1968, the standards articulated in Title IX were not applicable as a matter of law. However, ethical and other community standards, as well as local board of education and agency policies and practices, may constitute the standard by which the behavior of professionals at that time can be judged.

The earliest standards defining the rights of children were reflected in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1959. This policy statement stressed 10 principles affirming the right of children to receive special protection, to be given opportunities and facilities that enable them to develop in a healthy and normal manner, to receive an education, and to be protected against neglect, cruelty, and exploitation, including child sexual abuse. This general edict became more specific as individual countries began to develop legislation regarding the care and protection of children and as case law began to define neglect, cruelty, and exploitation — including sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse.

Over the past 20 years, our society has become more aware of the problem of children being sexually harassed and abused by adults representing religious and educational organizations. Cases such as Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools in 1992 and Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education in 1996 defined sexual harassment and identified how a school’s complacency created an abusive environment depriving a student of educational benefits.  The Supreme Court ruled in the Franklin matter that monetary damages could be awarded to individual victims of sexual harassment under Title IX and a school district could be held financially liable for a coach’s predatory behavior toward a student athlete.  In the Davis matter, the Supreme Court decision helped to clarify the definition of sexual harassment of one student toward another and further clarified the professional standard required of schools. The court held that a private Title IX damages action may lie against a school board in cases of student-on-student harassment — but only when the school has actual knowledge of sexual harassment that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively deprives the student of access to education and was deliberately indifferent to this activity.

Another Supreme Court case that further established the professional standard of care was Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, a case that addressed the issue of teachers who engage in sexual relationships with students. In this case, the Supreme Court determined that school districts are not liable under Title IX for teacher–student sexual harassment unless a responsible employee actually knew of the abuse and had the power to end it but failed to do so. These cases, along with standards from the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education in the form of “Dear Colleague” letters, contributed to the evolution of standards.

Though educational institutions, including K-12 schools and university level institutions, became subject to Title IX regulations in 1972, it was not until Franklin, Gebser and Davis were decided in 1992, 1998 and 1999, respectively, that the Supreme Court would define how schools can be held accountable under Title IX for sexual harassment. For allegations that occurred within the intervening quarter century, it can be challenging to identify and define the professional standard of care. However, there are other statutes, such as state child abuse-and-neglect laws and board of education policies written within that time span, that can help to identify the professional standard of care. For example, California enacted its first child-abuse reporting law in 1963. Before then, there was no legislation that defined the professional standard of care, such as mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect.  At that time, mandated reporters were subject to liability for making reports of abuse that turned out to be unfounded, and this thwarted reporting until the law was revised in 1980, when failure to report child abuse was criminalized and mandated reporters were given immunity for making reports. The California example has become the standard around the country. This is an example of how important it is to be aware of the prevailing professional standard when addressing the circumstances of a situation. Before the change in the California law, if a teacher had suspicion that a child was being abused, that person may not have reported it out of fear of reprisal. It doesn’t make that right, but when looking at the failure to act on the part of a teacher, one must take into consideration the laws and standards at the time that often set the moral compass.

A prohibition of inappropriate sexual behavior was not mentioned decades ago in documents of the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, or other recognized standard-setting organizations. Without a specific standard against which to compare what the administration of a school or agency did or failed to do, a plaintiff may have a more difficult time proving a breach of the standard. On the other hand, when there is statute, regulation, or policy identified within a specific timeframe and the allegation of abuse falls within an era in which these standards were acceptable in the field, then as an expert witness I am able to use those as benchmarks. When standards are in place, the plaintiff will have a better likelihood of successfully arguing that the standard was breached.

 

Case examples: Determining Standard of Care in Past Child Sexual Abuse or Harassment

When an attorney engages our firm to render an expert opinion about whether a school or other child supervisory agency in the United States or Canada may be liable for an alleged incident in the past, the complexities inherent in changing standards — such as the example of California law — require us to research and identify the standard of care at a specific time or period to render an opinion as to whether the school or agency met that standard.

For example, one of our case reviews involved alleged ongoing sexual harassment and child sexual abuse by a teacher between 1982 and 1989. A former elementary school student alleged that his teacher sexually abused him over that period while providing tutoring services at the student’s home. My review of the professional standard of care at that time revealed that there was no standard, statute or regulation, or board of education policy that required the school to develop a policy regarding sexual harassment of students by employees or to provide training to employees regarding sexual harassment. Additionally, there was no board of education policy requiring the school to develop standards regarding the provision of tutoring. During this timeframe, the professional standard of care did not compel the school to monitor outside teacher–student relationships, including tutoring relationships that parents arranged for and approved. In comparing today’s standard with that in the 1980s, one finds that because of the development of laws such as Title IX and the understanding that children are targeted by some teachers who sexually harass and abuse them, the standard of care is very different. Nowadays, the professional standard of care requires that schools provide employees with training on detection and prevention of sexual harassment, child sexual abuse and behaviors and ethical boundaries that cross the line of a typical teacher–student relationship. The opinion reached, following a review of testimony and documents, was that the school did not breach the professional standard of care at the time because none clearly existed.

Another case illustrates the challenges that exist when attempting to identify the professional standard of care over a period of time that might extend decades. This case was based on an allegation of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of students with disabilities in a residential school. The timeframe of the allegations of abuse spanned from 1951 through 2012. The state Department of Education was responsible for the supervision of educational programs in this publicly supported and funded school. It was also in charge of inspection, the improvement of instruction, and the protection of disabled students. As part of the review of this case to render an opinion as to whether the government, the Department of Education, and the school collectively and independently met the applicable standard of professional care within this timeframe, we began by reviewing legislation from the early 1900s that placed the education of disabled students, including the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, under the authority of the government. The claims in this case, specific to the school, spanned six decades, during which time standards of care changed from decade to decade. The challenge of this review was to identify each standard on a timeline from 1950s for each decade through the present and determine whether the involved entities met the standard for the protection of students with disabilities who were under the control, care, and supervision of the government.

In some cases, including this one, basic parental standards are considered when no other standards exist. This is done under the theory of in loco parentis and the school’s basic responsibility to protect students and act as any reasonable parent would, based on the circumstances and known information. For example, if the dorm supervisors in 1950s were aware that male students were entering rooms of female students at night and female students complained of inappropriate behavior or sexual conduct, the school had a responsibility to ensure that students are appropriately supervised to prevent such situations, as any reasonable parent at that time would do.

When reviewing such cases, to render an opinion as to whether a school or agency acted appropriately and reasonably and met the professional standard of care, we first determine what the accepted standard was during the relevant period of the allegation of child sexual abuse or other harmful incident. Next, we consider the standards as defined by the school or agency, based on the existing policies and procedures at that time. By applying the education, training, and professional experience of an education administrator to the review of the issues of a case and the relevant standards at the time, an opinion is rendered as to whether the school or agency met the professional standard of care within the field of education administration and supervision.

Private School Sexual Abuse and Harassment: Professional Standard of Care

title IX private schoolTitle IX, the law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in public education programs, is also relevant in application of professional standards within the context of private school sexual abuse and harassment and their response to alleged incidents.  Every school that accepts federal funding for any program or service it provides must adhere to Title IX. Most public schools, including charter schools and specialized education service commissions, accept federal assistance and, therefore, must comply with Title IX. Compliance requirements include, among other things, the development of policies prohibiting sexual harassment and assault, prompt and thorough investigation of complaints, training of staff, and the assignment of a person who oversees implementation of the law. Whether in a public school, residential program, or private school, Title IX standards capture and represent the professional standard of care and the best way to prevent and address sexual harassment or abuse of students — which are foreseeable in any educational setting.

Most private schools do not receive federal assistance, rendering those schools exempt from Title IX requirements. However, that does not mean they do not have a professional responsibility to protect their students from sexual harassment or abuse. The evolving professional standard of care in the field of education administration and supervision is that even if a private school is legally exempt from Title IX compliance, it has a responsibility to protect students from harm, such as that which may result from sexual harassment or abuse. In schools that do not accept federal assistance, the development of policies and procedures modeled after Office of Civil Rights (OCR) “Dear Colleague” letters to public school administrators will help to protect students from harm and may shield the school from costly litigation. The most recent letter begins by stating, “The U.S. Department of Education and its Office for Civil Rights (OCR) believe that providing all students with an educational environment free from discrimination is extremely important. The sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime.”

 

Applying Title IX Standards to Private Schools

In any school, the overall administrative goal is to create a positive learning environment in which students can reach their academic, social, and emotional potential. A hostile learning environment, which can be created by ongoing sexual harassment and abuse, prevents students from benefiting from their education. This may present a cause of action under Title IX in public schools or under breach of contract in private schools.

The elements of Title IX are universal in any educational setting, including private schools. When a private school applies Title IX standards in policy development and implementation, a positive effect on the learning environment will follow. One way for a private school to protect itself from sexual harassment allegations is to have a policy that conforms to best practices in the field. These best practices are found in the aforementioned Dear Colleague letters, which provide Title IX guidance and discuss application of specific elements of the law. Additional information from the Department of Education, including these letters, are available at the U.S. Department of Education Reading Room.

Policies developed by a private school should clearly state that the school does not tolerate sex discrimination or harassment in any form by anyone: students; teachers; contracted employees; or other school staff. The policy must be published and disseminated to all students, parents, staff, and anyone else associated with the school or who would come in contact with students, such as bus drivers, cafeteria and custodial staff, or parent volunteers. Having such a policy, distributing it widely, training staff and others about it, and implementing it will help to protect students and the school.

In private residential schools where students spend 24 hours a day on the premises, there is more opportunity for sexual misconduct to occur. In these settings, protecting children is particularly challenging. However, with clear supervisory policies and procedures that adhere to the professional standard in the field, training of staff and children, establishment of reporting systems, and immediate investigation of complaints, private schools with residential components will have a better chance to defend a negligence lawsuit.

Private schools should identify a person in the school to oversee the prevention, identification, and remediation of sexual harassment or abuse. That person should be knowledgeable about the requirements of Title IX in public schools and the Dear Colleague letters, and should be able to apply the standard toward the development of school policy, inform the school community of its requirements, and monitor its implementation. The most recent Dear Colleague letter, issued April 4, 2011, provides guidance on the unique concerns that arise in sexual violence cases, such as a school’s independent responsibility under Title IX to investigate (apart from any separate criminal investigation by local police) and address sexual violence.

 

Addressing Sexual Harassment and Abuse in Private Schools

A student at a private school may sue for breach of contract or negligence, whether or not the school accepts federal assistance and is bound by Title IX. If the contract between the private school and parents specifically states or implies that the school will protect students from harm, adequately supervise students, or otherwise assure their protection, then a student who is sexually harassed or assaulted on campus or in the residence hall may file a lawsuit claiming breach of contract for lack of security. Additionally, a claim of negligence can be made if the school had policies and procedures meant to protect students from sexual harassment and abuse but failed to implement them.

For example, in one of the cases we reviewed, a private school had no specific policy addressing sexual harassment of students by staff. A staff member used a school vehicle to pick up a student from her residence in the early evening to engage in sexual behavior. In addition to the question of whether the staff member was appropriately supervised, the school’s marketing material and the contract between the parents and the board of trustees clearly implied that students would be supervised at all times, including after curfew. The publications from the school specifically stated that students would be in a protective and secure environment. Because the student was not appropriately supervised, she was able to leave her residence and meet the staff member for sex. As the expert witness on this case, I reached the opinion that the school breached its own standard of care and was negligent by failing to adequately supervise students. This breach of policy created a situation that otherwise would not have existed and placed this student in harm’s way.

Even in a situation where the private school does not have a policy covering sexual abuse or harassment, the prevailing professional standard of care will apply. For example, if a student tells the principal or headmaster of a private school that he or she is experiencing sexual harassment from a teacher, the professional standard is that the school administration follow through by conducting an immediate and thorough investigation.

Though the school may not have a policy mandating this course of action, as an education administration and supervision expert witness, I can attest that the information and procedures published by the Office of Civil Rights are widely accepted in the field as the standard of care. The standard will emanate from accepted good practices in the field and from information provided by the Office of Civil Rights, regardless of whether the private school has a policy prohibiting sexual harassment. Failure to follow this standard may leave a private school liable for damages in the event of a lawsuit.