Law Review: Schools and students, a special relationship (Opinion)
The safety of school children should be paramount. It is not. That much has been made clear time and time again. Entrenched political division has left society’s most cherished, its most vulnerable. It is an unacceptable outcome. A failing neither citizens nor legislators should tolerate. But tragedy continues to strike. And when it does, it is lawsuits, rather than systemic change, that follow.
A recent case from the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, C. Achay v. Hunting Beach Union High School District, highlights the special legal relationship a school district has with its students to provide reasonable safety measures. Though the case does not concern mass tragedy, it sets forth the standards by which a school district may be held monetarily liable for negligently breaching the duty to protect its students.
Here are the strange and sad facts. One afternoon, a female student-athlete at Huntington Beach High School finished track practice 45 minutes early and decided to walk to a nearby Starbucks with a friend. On the way back to campus, the two encountered a former Huntington Beach High School student acting suspiciously: skating on rollerblades and harassing the two friends.
When the friends arrived back at campus, they alerted other students about the rollerblader and locked themselves in the girls’ locker room while retrieving their schoolbooks. The friends then left the locker room and headed to the school parking lot to be picked up by a parent. But while in route, the rollerblader skated up behind the female student and stabbed her in the buttocks, piercing her colon. The student survived the encounter but required two surgeries and the use of colostomy bag.
The student sued Hunting Beach Union High School District for negligence – alleging the District breached its duty to properly hire, train and supervise employees to provide security. The District argued it owed no such duty to the student at the time stabbing occurred – after school when the student was not partaking in a school activity – and that the stabbing was not foreseeable. The trial court agreed and threw the case out before it could be tried to a jury. The student appealed and the court of appeal reversed the trial court’s decision.
The court of appeal noted that “schools have a ‘special relationship’ with their students; therefore, schools are required to use reasonable measures to protect students from foreseeable injury at the hands of third parties acting negligently or intentionally.” The special relationship between a school district and its students places an affirmative duty on school districts to “take all reasonable steps to protect its students.” However, the duty only extends to activities taking place during school hours and to “school related or encouraged functions.”
The court held that because the student was stabbed when on campus for an after-school practice and was leaving a locker room still open to students, the District owed the student a duty of care to protect her from injury.
Though the court did not rule on the ultimate issue of negligence, it recognized that the absence of security supervisors on campus while “hundreds of high school students [are] interacting with whatever random members of the public happen to walk in,” may fall short of the District’s duty to provide “reasonable security measures.” On such finding, the court determined the case should be sent back to the trial court and argued on the merits.
The above case illustrates the avenue by which a school district may be sued for harms inflicted upon students while on campus. But in the context of larger school tragedies, like mass shootings, monetary recovery is a mere salve, not a solution. Nor should schools bear the full brunt of responsibility. The focus of educators should be education, not student preservation.
Change is needed on a societal level. Communities must coalesce. We must engage in discussions about gun control, mental health, and parent accountability and have the courage to compromise. We owe it to the youth; we owe it to ourselves.
Ravn R. Whitington is a partner at Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada. Ravn is a member of the firm’s Trial Practice Group where he focuses on all aspects of civil litigation. He has a diverse background in trial practice ranging from complex business disputes to personal injury to construction law, and all matters in between. He may be reached at email@example.com or http://www.portersimon.com.
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