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Schools' Liability Said Likely To Grow

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The increasing incidence of school-related crime has pushed precollegiate educators into a whole new arena of liability, according to experts.

While California has been the only state so far to make safe schools a legal right, there is a growing trend in the law, the experts say, to hold third-party defendants--including schools--liable for injuries sustained by the victims of crime and violence.

John R. Burton, a consultant for the Los Angeles County schools, predicts that more and more victims of school crime will soon be demanding compensation for injuries if schools have failed to provide a safe learning enviroment.

Two bellwether cases are cited on the issue. The first involves California's safe-schools law.

During the 1980-81 school year, Stephen Hosemann, a 7th-grade student in Oakland, had his watch stolen by an older student, Edward Hardy, who then offered to sell the watch back to the younger boy.

The incident sparked a long-running feud between the two boys that culminated in 1983, when Edward Hardy returned to the school and attacked the younger boy, hitting him several times in the face.

After the attack, Stephen Hosemann's parents filed a lawsuit seeking to force the Oakland school district to bar the older boy from transferring to the same high school. They claimed that their son had the constitutional right to a safe school environment.

The Alameda County Superior Court ruled in favor of the Hosemanns, but the decision is being appealed by the Oakland schools. Kevin S. Washburn, a lawyer representing the Hosemann youth, says the case may reach the state supreme court.

In another case, filed last year, a New York City teacher sued the school board, charging that it failed to adequately discipline a student who had repeatedly attacked her.

The suit, Zemsky v. New York City Board of Education, maintained that the board's failure to protect her deprived her of "liberty'' under the 14th Amendment's due-process clause.

Although a federal appeals court dismissed the suit, it noted in its opinion that states are obligated under the 14th Amendment to provide a safe school environment for employees and students.

It is only a matter of time, Mr. Burton says, before monetary damages are sought in such cases. In California, lawyers are already writing books on how to process school-liability cases, he says, and advertisements mentioning the subject can be seen on local television.

School officials must begin thinking about how they can protect themselves from liability in these cases, he warns. That may mean creating a more comprehensive security plan in a "best effort'' attempt to keep students and employees safe, he suggests.--LJ

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