Supreme Court Vacates Ruling in Student's Sex-Abuse Suit
Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court last week overturned a federal appellate ruling that Pennsylvania school officials violated a female student's constitutional rights by failing to protect her from sexual abuse by a school employee.
In an unsigned order, the Justices vacated the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit's decision last September in Smith v. Stoneking (Case No. 88-802). They directed the lower court to reconsider the case in light of the High Court's ruling last month in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services.
In the DeShaney case, the Court ruled 6 to 3 that the 14th Amendment's due-process clause imposes no duty on child-protection agencies to shield children from physical abuse by their parents. (See Education Week, March 1, 1989.)
Educators had closely monitored the DeShaney case because of a recent upsurge in the number of lawsuits charging administrators with violations of students' "substantive" right to liberty under the due-process clause. Like the Smith case, most of those suits involve charges that school officials should have known that teachers or other employees were likely to molest students.
Some legal observers suggested that by overturning the ruling in the Smith case, the Court was signaling to lower courts that they must further clarify the responsibilities of public agencies to protect pri8vate individuals, in light of the DeShaney ruling.
In the Smith case, a former member of the Bradford Area (Pa.) High School band alleges that the band director, Edward Wright, molested her on numerous occasions from 1980 until her graduation in 1983.
The student claims that her school's principal and assistant principal and the school district's superintendent failed to take corrective action after they learned in 1979 that Mr. Wright had attempted to abuse another female student.
The band director resigned in 1986 after a psychologist reported a complaint concerning the sexual abuse of another student. The director was eventually convicted of various sex-related crimes.
Through negligence, the plaintiff alleges, the administrators failed to protect her from abuse and thus deprived her of liberty under the 14th Amendment. The student sought to collect an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages.
When the case reached a federal district court, the school officials asked that it be dismissed on the grounds of "qualified immunity." They argued that at the time of the alleged molestation, "no clearly settled law existed" that would have caused them to know that they were violating the rights of the student.
The district court rejected their motion, and the Third Circuit Court af- continued on Page 28
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firmed that decision last September.
According to the appellate court, Pennsylvania's compulsory-attendance and child-abuse-reporting laws, coupled with "the broad common-law duty owed by school officials to students," provided ample reason "to conclude there was an affirmative desire on the part of the state" to protect students from sexual abuse.
The court also noted that following the Supreme Court's 1977 ruling in a corporal-punishment case, Ingraham v. Wright, "every reasonable school official should have known that it was a breach of [his] duty knowingly to stand by and take no action to protect a student from a beating administered by a faculty member."
Because "sexual abuse is at least as tramautic as physical abuse," the appellate judges held, the school officials should "have known that there was a duty to take some affirmative action to investigate and protect students4from a teacher's sexual abuse of which they were made aware, and to take steps to eliminate rather than condone an atmosphere in which a teacher could sexually harass students with impunity."
In light of these facts and the 1979 allegations against the band director, the administrators should have been "on special notice that female band members faced a 'special danger,"' the court continued. "In these circumstances, [the] defendant school officials had a constitutional duty to investigate and take reasonable steps to protect the students."
The appellate court then sent the case back to the district court for a full hearing on the student's charges.
School-law experts said last week that the Supreme Court's action did not mark an end to the Smith case. The Third Circuit court, they noted, could decide to uphold its prior decision after rehearing the suit.
In other action last week, the High Court declined to review a fed8eral appellate decision in a corporal-punishment suit, thus apparently leaving appeals courts divided on the question of students' constitutional right to be free from excessive punishment.
The case, Cunningham v. Beavers (No. 88-1181), stems from charges that two Texas kindergartners were paddled so severely by a teacher and principal that bruises were left on the children's buttocks. The students' parents filed suit, claiming that the punishment was so severe as to deprive the children of their substantive due-process right to liberty under the 14th Amendment.
Federal district and appeals courts rejected the charges, however. They held that because the children had the right to file tort or criminal charges in state courts, their substantive right to liberty had not been violated.
Last year, the Supreme Court declined to review a federal appellate decision in Miera v. Garcia that a student's right to liberty was violated when she was paddled severely.