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November 11th, 2014

School Violence Lawsuits (Sexual Assaults, Hazing, Etc.)

Violence in school settings is a serious problem in this country. Over the last few years, the reports of school violence have increased. For instance, there have been roughly a dozen school shooting incidents in the last 5-10 years. There have also been reports of children bringing guns or knives to school. Hazing and bullying are also major problems, not to mention the problem of sexual assault and sexual abuse in schools. The very scary reality is that students are at risk of suffering serious injuries in the place where they are supposed to be safe.

Liability for School Violence

One of the key questions in any school violence case is whether the school is liable, and oftentimes, schools are liable. Let’s examine why.

Under most state and federal laws, schools are required to provide reasonably safe environments for students. When a dangerous condition or event occurs, a school can be held liable if there is evidence that prior to the incident at issue, the school either knew about the condition/event or should have known about it. The key is who knew what and when. If a school learns something and fails to take appropriate action, it may face liability for a student’s injury.

Is this fair? Absolutely. Schools, whether private or public, owe a duty of care to students. Primary schools like elementary schools, middle schools and high schools, in a sense, step into the shoes of the parent while the child is physically at school. For secondary schools like colleges and universities, the duty is slightly broader or more general. Colleges and schools owe students (and faculty) a general duty of care.

There are two key questions in school violence cases, like assault or hazing cases. First, is the school a private school or a public school? Second, is the actor (negligent party or criminal party) a school employee or a fellow student?

Public Versus Private Schools

Public and private schools are treated differently under the law when it comes to lawsuits for school injuries. Public schools are held to a higher standard in these kinds of cases. Lawsuits for school violence against public schools are usually successful when there is overwhelming evidence of negligence (like repeated reports of sexual abuse by a teacher over the course of months or years). Private schools however, are held to a lower standard.

School Employee/Agent

If a school employee or agent like a school volunteer is the individual committing the wrongful act, the school is more likely to be liable. The theory of liability in this kind of situation is a failure to train employees or failure to perform background checks, etc.

Fellow Student

Many cases of school violence are perpetrated by fellow students. These situations are tough from a liability standpoint, unless there is evidence to suggest an ongoing pattern or practice that was expressly or implicitly accepted by the school’s employees. School hazing lawsuits are more likely to be successful where there is evidence that school employees basically knew about the hazing over a period of time and still allowed it to continue.

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