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California Court Weighs School-Safety Provision

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Lawyers for the Oakland school district argued last week that California's unique constitutional amendment guaranteeing a safe school environment does not explicitly state that districts can be held liable for any act of violence against a student on campus.

The provision is "not self-executing," and thus would require additional legislation to establish such liability, the lawyers contended during oral arguments in a closely watched case.

The lawsuit, Hosemann v. Oakland Unified School District, is currently before the state's First District Court of Appeals. The case could eventually set a statewide precedent on school liability in California, legal experts say.

But Robin B. Johansen, a lawyer for the Oakland schools, said after the court session last week that "what has been built up in the press as the seminal school-security case will more likely end up a procedural matter."

She predicted that alleged technical flaws in the filing of the suit would result in an appellate-court decision favoring the school district.

In 1986, a lower court held the district liable for injuries suffered by a junior-high-school student.

The case hinges on a constitutional provision, known as the "victims' bill of rights," that was adopted by state voters in 1982. The amendment, the only one of its kind in the nation, guarantees students and school employees "the2p4right to a school environment that is safe, secure, and peaceful."

'Affirmative Duty'

The suit was filed by the mother of an Oakland student, Stephen Hosemann, who charged that the district failed to prevent repeated attacks on the boy by another student.

A superior-court judge ruled in favor of the student, finding that the district had an "affirmative duty to make schools safe." He said the district was liable for damages and ordered school officials to develop a school-security plan. (See Education Week, May 28, 1986.)

The judge also ruled that the constitutional provision was both "mandatory and self-executing."

That opinion contradicts a ruling by the state's Third District Court of Appeals in another case, Leger v. Stockton Unified School District.

A judge for the Third District, in a decision cited by the Oakland school district in its appeal of Hosemann, ruled that the safe-schools provision was not self-executing. He said that the amendment would require further legislation to hold schools responsible for damages in cases of campus violence.

Kevin S. Washburn, the lawyer for the plaintiff in Hosemann, noted that attorneys in the Leger case sought only damages and a determination of school liability.

Legislation Pending

The Hosemann case, he said, seeks to reform school-safety practices by determining whether districts must develop a specific securiel10lty plan to provide the safest campus environment possible.

Legislation that would require each district to develop a school-security plan is currently before state lawmakers. A similar bill was adopted last year, but was vetoed by the governor, who cited fiscal constraints.

Ms. Johansen, the lawyer for the Oakland schools, said district officials have supported the bill. Such matters, she argued, should be de4cided by lawmakers and local school boards, not the court system.

"Schools throughout the state are doing all they can to make their campuses safe," she said in an interview. "But we don't feel it's up to the courts to determine what is 'enough' to avoid liability."

Observers say that the issue of California schools' responsibility for campus safety will eventually make its way to the state supreme court.

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