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September 8th, 2014

Public School Sex Abuse-Assault Lawsuits in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Public School Sex Assault Law Update – Federal Court Rules Against Philadelphia Public School [In September 2016, a federal judge held that a school in Philadelphia could be held liable for allowing an unidentified adult to remove a kindergarten student from class, and the adult later sexually assaulted the young student.]

Victims who are sexually abused or assaulted in school settings in Pennsylvania may be able to pursue justice in the civil courts by filing lawsuits against the direct perpetrators in addition to the schools. Many victims are often surprised to learn that school entities and organizations may face liability for failing to take appropriate action to prevent or stop sex abuse by an employee, such as:

  • a teacher,
  • a principal, or
  • a coach.

School sex abuse-assault cases are very complex. This is often due to standards applicable in these kinds of cases which also vary depending on the type of school, public versus private.  As a general rule, a public school in Pennsylvania may be held liable for sex abuse of a student if the school acted in such a way that it created the danger or at least, increased the risk of danger. In addition, the school’s actions must rise to such a level that it willfully disregarded the health/safety of the students. This standard is much higher than the general negligence standard which applies in private school sex abuse-assault cases.

Related: School Assault & Sexual Abuse Law – Public School Liability for Sexual Assault

Public Schools – Willful Disregard of a Known Risk

In order to prove that a school willfully disregarded a known risk, there must be evidence that the school either created the risk itself or otherwise failed to take action, thus leading to an increased risk of harm. The level of proof required to meet this standard is quite high. There must be evidence of a repeated pattern of indifference. Basically, a school must have had prior knowledge of the problem. More importantly, there must have been multiple prior events.

For example, in Jane Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, et al. (2013), a federal court in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania ruled against the school district in an early stage of the case. The school district tried to dismiss the student’s claims of sexual abuse by a teacher and argued that the student had not stated a sufficient case under the standard applicable to public schools. The court disagreed and ruled that the student’s claims against the school district were appropriate.

The basic facts of that case involved a male teacher who is alleged to have been known for sexually aggressive contact with students and sexually suggestive comments at least 8 years before the acts giving rise to the lawsuit. As early as 2003, the school district is alleged to have received complaints about the specific teacher. The court stated:

Furthermore, plaintiff alleged that the school district ignored or downplayed reports of sexual harassment; suppressed specific complaints of harassment against Mr. MacLellan; allowed him to breach school rules, and in doing so allowed him to continue grooming female students for inappropriate sexual relations; and inadequately trained and monitored defendant MacLellan, knowing that he exhibited an unreasonable risk of committing future acts of sexual harassment.

Finally, plaintiff alleged that the school district’s response to defendant MacLellan’s past sexual harassment was so ineffectual that it communicated to Mr. MacLellan and students that such behavior was acceptable, which emboldened Mr. MacLellan and chilled complaints from students. Plaintiff alleged that therefore the school board’s policy led to her ultimately being sexually assaulted by defendant MacLellan.

Basically, the court held that there were sufficient claims to proceed against the school district because of the extent of the evidence, i.e., multiple complaints about the abusing teacher/school employee going back years. This is the type of evidence required in sex abuse-assault cases against public schools. Therefore, it is important to conduct a thorough investigation. For more legal info about school sex abuse-assault cases, visit our law library.

Legal Help for Victims of School Sexual Abuse & Assault

If you would like to discuss your rights in a Pennsylvania school assault/sex assault case, please call our office at Click To Call. Firm founder Guy D’Andrea is a former prosecutor who now helps victims of crime in civil lawsuit cases. The firm has offices in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware.

DISCLAIMER: This website does not create any attorney-client relationship or provide legal advice. It is crucial to speak to a qualified lawyer prior to making any decision about your case. Read full disclaimer at the bottom of this page.

Page last updated: September 14, 2016