Recently there has been a rash of lawsuits in which parents have accused California teachers, school officials and school districts of abuse or causing serious injury to students.
Some of these suits have made headlines – particularly in cases involving criminal activity, such as sexual assault.
But even simple accidents and mistakes can leave students damaged and teachers vulnerable.
To help you better understand when parent can sue for injuries to a student, our California personal injury lawyers have compiled a list of five common situations which can lead to liability in California schools.
1. Teacher Misconduct in California
In California, a teacher can be sued for any breach of a duty of care to a student.
Such claims fall into two broad categories:
- The teacher was negligent in supervising a student or directly causing an injury, or
- The teacher committed an intentional or reckless act.
Intentional wrongs include actions such as bullying, defamation and acts that can result in criminal charges, such as violations of:
- California's sexual battery law,
- California's assault and battery laws, or
- California's law against false imprisonment.
School districts and officials are generally not liable for intentional wrongs committed by teachers or during other acts outside the scope of the teacher's employment unless the school district itself was negligent in the hiring, retention or supervision of the teacher (discussed below).
When a teacher is negligent, the school district can generally be held liable under California's doctrine of respondeat superior (vicarious employer liability). This usually occurs when:
- The teacher was acting within the normal scope of his or her employment, and
- The injury was a normal risk of running a school.
Example: Madison, a 6-year old, is injured when she falls off school climbing equipment at recess. At the time of the accident, Madison's teacher was checking her text messages instead of watching the kids. Supervising the playground was within the scope of the teacher's employment and playground injuries are a normal risk at school. Thus both the teacher and the school district are potentially liable for Madison's injuries.11
2. Negligent Hiring, Retention or Supervision by a California School
A school district is not normally responsible for wrongs intentionally committed by teachers or other employees, especially wrongs, such as sexual assault, wholly unrelated to the job of teaching.
However, under certain circumstances, a school district may be liable under California's law on negligent hiring, retention, or supervision. The law applies when the school:
- Failed to conduct a reasonable background check on the teacher or employee,
- Hired or retained a teacher or employee even though it knew, or should have known, that the individual was unfit to be a teacher, or
- Failed to supervise, train or discipline a teacher or other employee who required supervision.
This cause of action is often alleged in civil lawsuits based on teacher abuse or harassment. When it is established, it allows plaintiffs to recover from the school district, which usually has deeper pockets than the teacher alone.
For example, in 2012, the Supreme Court of California permitted a California high school student who was sexually harassed and abused by his guidance counselor to sue the school district on the grounds that school officials knew the counselor had a history of sexual abuse of minors.
*While some teachers are convicted under California's criminal laws, getting a criminal conviction can be difficult. And unfortunately, teacher contracts in California often prevent a teacher from being fired for abuse absent such a conviction.
However, once a school is on notice that an employee presents a potential danger to students, officials must take reasonable steps to protect child safety. Reasonable steps might include requiring an aide to be present at all times a teacher is with students, or removing the teacher from active classroom duties.*
3. Violation of a California Student's Constitutional Rights
Lawsuits against school districts sometimes result from an alleged violation of a student's constitutional rights. Such claims often include (without limitation):
- Violation of a student's right to free speech,
- Violation of a student's free exercise of religion, or
- Violation of federal or California laws on unreasonable searches and seizures.
Claims for violating students' constitutional rights in California are typically brought in federal court. In Los Angeles, for instance, such cases are usually heard in the United States District Court for the Central District of California.
These claims can be difficult to win. Courts give schools more freedom to limit student activities at school than apply to adults in other situations.
As just one example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has held that mandatory dress codes s in schools are legally enforceable as long as:
- They are viewpoint- and content-neutral,
- They advance important interests unrelated to the suppression of free speech, and
- They impose as minimal a restriction as possible on the students' free expression.
Thus a rule preventing students from exposing their midriffs would most likely be upheld as reasonable since such a rule would be gender-neutral and arguably would help prevent against sexual assault.
However, what is considered reasonable today might be different tomorrow. For instance, in 1971 the 9th Circuit upheld a rule prohibiting male students from having long hair. Today, such a rule would likely not be considered gender-neutral. It might also constitute gender discrimination in violation of Title IX (discussed below).
Schools are also not allowed to prohibit speech merely because they find the content offensive. For instance, in a famous free speech in schools case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a school could not prevent students from wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. On the other hand, a rule preventing children from wearing gang colors would probably be upheld as it serves the purpose of preventing violence. The 9th Circuit even upheld a California school's right to prohibit wearing images of the American flag after school officials learned of threats of race-related violence during a Cinco de Mayo celebration.
But schools may also not require students to engage in or promote speech they or parents find offensive. For instance, a school cannot require students to say the pledge of allegiance or salute the flag. Nor can a student be forced to wear a uniform containing a school motto.
And finally, federal courts have upheld the right of students to be free from unreasonable searches. For a search to pass muster under the Fourth Amendment, three conditions must be satisfied:
- The school must have reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school;
- The search must be reasonably related to the circumstances justifying the interference; and
- The search must be appropriate in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.
For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld as reasonable the search of the purse of a student who was accused of smoking in the bathroom. But requiring a student accused of drug possession to remove her clothes down to her underwear, and then pull out the bands on her bra and underpants constituted an unreasonable strip search by the school.
4. Title IX Discrimination in California Schools
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational programs. It applies to all schools receiving federal funds for any purpose.
Schools that violate Title IX can be liable to students for damages arising from intentional torts by teachers, such as:
- Sexual assault by teachers;
- Sexual harassment by teachers;
- Discrimination in schools based on transgender status or gender identity;
- Discrimination in schools based on sexual orientation.
To maintain an action for damages under Title IX, however, the plaintiff must prove that:
- An official of the school district with authority to institute corrective measures on the district's behalf knew of a teacher's misconduct, had the power to end it, and failed to do so, or
- A school policy violated Title IX.
In 2015, for example, the University of California Board of Regents settled two claims of Title IX violations against a professor who allegedly made unwelcome sexual advances and harassed female students. Those lawsuits settled for $350,000 and $110,000, respectively.
Recent lawsuits over North Carolina's controversial bathroom bill have also used Title IX discrimination as their basis. Those cases -- which remain unresolved -- alleged a violation based on a laws requiring students to the bathroom corresponding to the student's birth gender rather than the one conforming to the student's gender identity.
5. Accidents in California schools
Some injuries that occur at a school have nothing to do with teachers or school districts, but are the result of accidents over oversights that could occur anywhere.
However, just because an injury resulted from an accident, it doesn't mean the school wasn't liable.
Your child might be entitled to payment for medical bills, property damage and pain and suffering if he or she was injured because of the negligence of a teacher or other school employee.
Common causes of injuries for which California schools may be liable include (without limitation):
- A bus accident on the way to a school field trip or sporting event;
- A car accident caused by someone driving on school business;
- A slip-and-fall accident in the school cafeteria;
- Food poisoning;
- Fights between inadequately supervised students;
- Bullying by another student; or
- Failure to administer first aid or seek medical help after a playground injury.
Was your child injured at a California school? Call us for help...
School shouldn't have to be a scary or dangerous place for you or your child. Unfortunately, it sometimes is.
If you or your child was injured at school in California we invite you to call our Los Angeles personal injury attorneys at (855) 396-0370 for a free consultation to find out whether you might have a remedy.