Schools have a duty to protect students from harm, including the harm inflicted or created by its own staff. While acts by a staff member resulting in injury to a student generally fit into the category of negligence, a teacher or an administrator as a state actor can generate a state-created danger.
The difference with state-created danger, as opposed to negligence, is its application under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution and Section 1983 of Chapter 42 of the United States Code. School officials can be held responsible when they knew of impending danger, were recklessly indifferent to it, and through the authority vested in them by the state (public school board of education), knowingly created a dangerous environment that led to an otherwise preventable injury. Liability under Section 1983 can be imposed on a school district if a student’s deprivation of rights is consistent with a school or district’s custom or policy, or if it results from an act of those who are ultimately responsible for setting policy in that area of school business (see City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112 ).
Section 1983 has been used to seek monetary damages for violations of what courts refer to as bodily integrity, which is protected by the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause prohibits “unjustified intrusions on personal security.” Most cases involving bodily integrity in schools concern sexual molestation, although excessive corporal punishment may also implicate this right. Educators who deliberately cause serious harm to a student, such as in the case of a coach who put a student’s eye out by hitting him with a metal object (Neal ex rel. Neal v. Fulton County Board of Education, 229 F.3d 1069 [11th Cir. 2000]), may be sued under Section 1983 for due process violations if one or more of the conditions below are met.
Section 1983 is used to bring suit only against individuals whose actions are attributable to the state, and cannot be employed against a private wrongdoer (DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 ). Minor injuries that result from a teacher deliberately hitting a student — or even serious injuries that result from a teacher’s own negligence or deliberate indifference — do not violate the Due Process Clause. In one case, for instance, a court ruled that a teacher’s repeated humiliation of a student was not a due process violation (Costello v. Mitchell Public School District 79, 266 F.3d 916 [8th Cir. 2001]). Another court, however, has said that there may be a due process violation when an educator’s deliberate action “shocks the conscience” and increases the danger to a student. In that case, which involved a violent, 16-year-old special education student who had threatened to kill himself, school officials sent the boy home without notifying his parents (Armijo Chavez v. Wagon Mound Public Schools, 159 F.3d 1253 [10th Cir. 1998]).
Conditions for liability under Section 1983
A school district and/or its officials or employees may be held liable under Section 1983 if any of the following conditions are met:
- The wrongdoing was undertaken pursuant to a custom or a formal policy of the district, the individual who committed the wrongful act was an official with final policymaking authority, or an official with final authority ratified a subordinate’s wrongful act (Gillette v. Delmore, 979 F.2d 1342 [9th Cir. 1992]). As an example, failure to have a formal policy for dealing with sexual harassment might expose a district to Section 1983 liability because the lack of a policy indicates a custom of tolerating sexual harassment (Doe v. Estes, 926 F. Supp. 979 [D. Nev. 1996]).
- A school official with the authority to take corrective action had actual notice of wrongdoing under Section 1983 and was deliberately indifferent (Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, 524 U.S. 274 ). This Title IX standard can be applied in Section 1983 cases as well. Inadequate hiring policies (Doe v. Hillsboro Independent School District, 81 F.3d 1395 [5th Cir. 1996]) or training of employees (City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 ; Doe v. Estes, 926 F. Supp. 979 [D. Nev. 1996]), for instance, may be viewed as forms of indifference.
- A school district’s action either exposed students to dangers that they otherwise would not have faced or it increased the risks associated with existing dangers (Johnson v. Dallas Independent School District, 38 F.3d 198 [5th Cir. 1994]; Leffall v. Dallas Independent School District, 28 F.3d 521 [5th Cir. 1994]). The mere fact that a student’s rights were violated at school, or that a violator was a teacher, does not mean that a state-created danger exists. Rather, it must be shown that the school exposed a student to people with a known propensity for harming the plaintiff, or that it provided such people with an opportunity to injure the student (Plumeau v. Yamhill County School District, 907 F. Supp. 1423 [D. Ore. 1995]). Assigning a student of known violent propensities to the class of an inadequately trained teacher, for instance, is the kind of step that could lead to liability (Compare Cornelius v. Town of Highland Lake, 880 F.2d 348 [11th Cir. 1989]).
Plaintiffs who allege state-created danger must demonstrate four elements in a Section 1983 claim:
- A relationship existed between the school and the student.
- The harm to the student was ultimately foreseeable and fairly direct.
- The school willfully disregarded the student’s safety.
- The school used its authority to create an opportunity that otherwise would not have existed for injury to occur.
Foreseeability and willful disregard
In school cases, plaintiffs’ claims usually center on the failure of a school district to prevent dangerous situations that adversely affect a student’s right to be protected from harm. Teachers, principals, and other staff, by the nature of their relationship with students, have an affirmative duty to protect students in dangerous situations. As an example, if a principal or other school official charged with the responsibility of teacher supervision receives a complaint from a parent, a student, a teacher, or other staff member that a teacher is yelling at students, hitting them on their knuckles with a ruler, pushing their heads into their desks with force, pinching them, or abusing them in other ways, the school official has an affirmative duty to investigate quickly and thoroughly, and to take steps to end the abuse. Any reasonable school administrator would foresee harm to students if the behavior continued. Not taking complaints seriously or conducting only a minimal investigation may be considered acting with deliberate indifference to the mistreatment of children, thus creating a dangerous environment that can lead to a lawsuit under Section 1983.
Another hypothetical case illustrates another example of a possible Section 1983 claim. An experienced special education teacher was responsible for the education, safety, and welfare of a class of eight children with disabilities. These students had expressive language disorders — rendering it impossible, or at best unlikely, that they would be able to verbalize to anyone that their teacher was abusing them. Two teacher aides, recent college graduates with teaching degrees, assisted the teacher in the classroom. The teacher aides saw the teacher physically abuse the students, but did not report the teacher’s actions to the appropriate law enforcement agency or the state agency responsible for the protection of children. The aides had a legal duty to protect the students from harm, but failed to exercise that duty; as such, the school administration had no notice that it was occurring. When the abuse finally came to light by a parent who asked about bruises on her son, the teacher aides admitted to having witnessed the abuse but said they were afraid to report the teacher to the principal. They also denied knowing that they had a legal responsibility to contact authorities outside of the school.
Though the administration had no notice that students were being mistreated, the situation may be viewed as a failure to provide adequate training. Through its administration, the school acted indifferently to student abuse when it did not ensure that the aides understood their duty to report abuse when they see it. This failure to train allowed a situation that otherwise would not have been present to persist — resulting in continual harm to the students.
Any reasonable school administrator would foresee that if the abuse in these examples went unchecked, the harm to students would be fairly direct. In both cases, it may be determined that the school acted in willful disregard for the safety of the students. In the first case, had no or minimal investigation taken place, the school could be found to have responded unreasonably to the danger students faced. In the second case, no training was provided that could have prevented a dangerous situation.
Student on student abuse under Section 1983
Up to now, we have focused on the actions of school personnel in describing scenarios for Section 1983 liability. In 2009, the Supreme Court held in Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee that a plaintiff can bring a claim for student-to-student sexual harassment under Section 1983 (Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee, 555 U.S. 246 ). The case details a disturbing picture of elementary school-level, student-on-student sexual harassment. A kindergarten girl told her parents that each time she wore a dress on the school bus, a third-grade boy would coerce her into lifting her skirt or pulling down her underpants and spreading her legs. The police, however, were unable to corroborate her story and did not bring criminal charges against the boy. The school’s own investigation ended without disciplinary measures against the boy. Subsequently, the boy continued to bully the girl.
The justices ruled unanimously that Title IX protections did not preclude Section 1983 liability. Thus, the Barnstable case opened the door for students who are bullied and harassed to hold individual school officials liable under Section 1983, for permitting sexual harassment by other students.
Damages under Section 1983
Students suing under Section 1983 are entitled to recover only nominal damages unless they can show actual loss (Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247 ; Memphis Community School District v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299 ). The damage award is not based on the value or importance of the violated right, but only on the actual injuries suffered. Students may also be able to obtain punitive damages against individual defendants who act with malice. Punitive damages against a school district itself are not permitted because the Supreme Court has reasoned that punitive damages against a government entity would punish taxpayers, and that only individuals — not government entities — can act with malice (City of Newport v. Fact Concerts Inc., 453 U.S. 247 ).
It must be emphasized, however, that liability can be imposed on a school district if a policy or custom results in deprivation of rights, or if the acts of the highest officials responsible for setting policy in the school deprives a student of his or her due process guarantees (City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112 ). As such, even with limitations on damages, students who win Section 1983 lawsuits can sometimes recover large awards.
What attorneys should review
For both defendant and plaintiff attorneys, the question to answer in such cases is: Did the school, through its administration and/or other employees, act affirmatively and with deliberate indifference in creating, or enhancing, a foreseeable danger to the student, leading to the deprivation of constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment?
If the school had culpable knowledge, and if its administration and/or other employees, conducted themselves in a way that affirmatively placed the student in a position of danger, a Section 1983 claim may be relevant. For liability to exist, the situation created by the school must be dangerous; the school must know that it is dangerous; and it must have used its authority to create an opportunity that would not otherwise have existed in which the student suffered harm.