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September 5th, 2014

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

One of the most complex issues which arise in school assault and school sexual abuse cases is whether a public school can be held liable for allowing the criminal activity to occur.

September 2016 Law Update: A federal court in Pennsylvania has ruled against a local school in Philadelphia, finding that the school violated a student’s constitutional rights when a teacher allowed an unknown and unidentified adult to remove the girl from her kindergarten classroom and the adult later sexually assaulted the girl. Read about L.R. v. School District of Philadelphia, 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, 2016

Legal Basis for Federal Claims

The Civil Rights Act, Section 1983, provides victims of school abuse and school sexual abuse with legal recourse. In addition, claims may also be recognized under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. This article will focus primarily on Section 1983 claims.

Basis of Liability of a Public School

All students have a constitutional right to be free from invasion of their personal security through sexual abuse. Sexual molestation by a teacher is an intrusion of the student’s bodily integrity.

Therefore, a school district (public school) can be held liable under Section 1983 if the school district’s policy, procedures or custom played a direct role in bringing about the sexual abuse and the school acted with deliberate indifference to the abuse. Ordinary negligence is not enough. For instance, merely failing to investigate, without additional evidence, will probably be insufficient to sustain a school sex abuse case.

Related: Pennsylvania & New Jersey Sexual Abuse Law – Government Liability for Sex Abuse

State Created Danger Doctrine

Under federal case law, public schools can be held liable for an assault or sexual assault/abuse where state actors (employees) created the danger. Under the state created danger doctrine, there must be evidence of the following 4 elements:

(1) the harm ultimately caused was foreseeable and direct;

(2) the school acted in willful disregard for the safety of the student;

(3) a relationship between the school and the student; and

(4) the school created an opportunity that otherwise would not have existed, thereby allowing the third party’s (teacher, coach, principal, etc.) crime to occur.

Basically, the success of a school assault/sexual assault lawsuit hinges on whether there is sufficient evidence that the school acted in such a manner that it willfully disregarded or showed deliberate indifference to the health and safety of the student.

The Key is Showing a Pattern of Behavior (AKA Deliberate Indifference)

In order to succeed in a school assault or sexual abuse case, there must be sufficient evidence which establishes that the school acted with deliberate indifference. In other words, there must be a pattern of behavior. An isolated incident will not be enough to demonstrate a pattern of behavior.

Example of a School’s Pattern of Indifference Resulting in Sexual Abuse by a Teacher

A student brings a sexual abuse case against a school district and the perpetrator (teacher) for sexual abuse that occurred over the course of a year. Evidence shows that in the previous 5 years, the school received at least 10 reports by teachers and students about this particular teacher engaging in inappropriate, sexual conduct with other students. Documents show that school administrators attempted to suppress those reports and even falsified information on multiple occasions. Here, there is enough evidence to show the school acted with deliberate indifference to the safety of the student. Again, proving repeated behavior is key.

Related: School Sex Abuse Claims in New Jersey (Part 1) – NJ’s Child Sex Abuse Act & the Statute of Limitations

Legal Help for Victims of School Assault, Sexual Assault

If you would like to discuss your rights in a 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