Law & School: Schools aren’t liable for sexual abuse committed by otherwise good students?

August 22, 2012

School Law(Editor’s note: With August being the “back to school” month for everyone from preschoolers to law students, we’ll be looking at recent important developments in education law throughout the month.)

You can read the first week’s post about the unconstitutional high school graduation practices in church here.

You can read the second week’s post about the legal liability for school bullying here.

You can read the third week’s post about affirmative action at the Supreme Court here.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the legal liability of school bullying – specifically discussing who is liable.

This week, I’ll be looking at something along the same lines: who is liable when students sexually abuse much younger students on school grounds.

There are definite points of distinction between the two.

The legal harm resulting from school bullying is typically more attenuated (suicides, school shootings, etc) than that stemming from sexual abuse, which is considered harm in itself, so causal link to damages is more difficult for victims of school bullying.

Conversely, the practice of bullying is more foreseeable than sexual abuse, so the duty to prevent it is more easily established.

This point of foreseeability seems to be the main obstacle in assigning liability to schools for older students sexually abusing younger students.

Take the case of Geywits ex rel. Geywits v. Charlotte Valley Central School District, in which the New York state appeals court recently ruled that the school district was not liable for the sexual abuse perpetrated on several first grade students by James R. Quigley, a high school sophomore.

The abuse, which occurred over the course of several months, took place when Quigley brought the children, who were walking unattended from the cafeteria to their classrooms after breakfast, into a bathroom stall and directed them to pull down their pants.

He then exposed himself and touched the children’s private parts.

The appeals court dismissed the action because the school district “had no notice of prior similar conduct” by the sophomore.

This lack of “notice of prior similar conduct” means that the sexual abuse wasn’t foreseeable, and thus the school district wasn’t liable.

The school district has an extra duty in addition to the one created by garden variety foreseeability: “a duty to adequately supervise students in their care.”

What this duty actually entails is nebulous.

New York case law holds that “[l]iability will be established where the school fails to supervise its students with the same degree of care as a parent of ordinary prudence in comparable circumstances and such negligent supervision was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s foreseeable injuries.”

How did this apply in the Geywits case?

The four judges in the majority decided that Quigley’s conduct was unforeseeable, and as such was “an intervening act that breaks the causal connection between the alleged lack of supervision and the injuries sustained.”

In other words, because Quigley didn’t have anything bad on his school record, there was no reason to think that he could be capable of sexually abusing 6-year-old kids who were left to roam the halls unattended.

Using this logic, would the school district be liable if a student with a history of sexual misconduct had committed the sexual abuse?

Yes, but this appeals court likely would have still absolved the school district.

Its logic makes so little sense that there can be no other explanation save that the court already had this result in mind.

First of all, the logic is based on the presumption that all sexual predators have some kind of negative prior record, which is just nonsensical.

Second, as the lone dissenter points out, the school certainly did not act “as a reasonably prudent parent would when it allowed these six-year-old children” to regularly traverse the hallways unaccompanied.

Further, as the dissent also points out, the sexual abuse may have come to the attention of school staff “or may not have materialized at all” had the children been accompanied.

So it can hardly be said that there was some kind of break in the causal chain between the school’s lack of supervision and the sexual abuse.

The worst part of this ruling is the lesson that school districts learned from it:

Your recordkeeping on student misbehavior should be as low as legally possible to avoid liability for student crimes.