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School Officials Liable for Failing To Prevent Assaults, Court Rules

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Public-school officials violate students' 14th Amendment right to "liberty" when they fail to protect them from sexual abuse by school employees, a federal appeals court has held.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled late last month that a former high-school student may sue a Pennsylvania school district and individual school officials for negligent supervision of a band director who sexually assaulted the girl.

The ruling marked the second time that the Third Circuit Court had reached the same conclusion in the case, Bradford Area School District v. Stoneking.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the lower court's previous ruling and ordered it to reconsider the case in light of the High Court's decision in a related lawsuit, Deshaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services.

In that case, the Court held that a child-welfare agency did not violate a boy's "substantive due-process" rights under the 14th Amendment by failing to protect him from beatings by his father. The boy's injuries left him brain-damaged for life.

School officials had watched the Deshaney case closely because they feared that a ruling in the boy's favor would have exposed them to a flood of lawsuits in the federal courts. The National School Boards Association, for example, argued in a friend-of-the-court brief in the case that such suits should be heard in state, and not federal, courts.

The Third Circuit Court, however, disagreed with that position in its ruling in the Pennsylvania case. The suit against the school officials should be allowed, it held, because the assault was perpetrated by an employee subject to the school district's "immediate control."--ws

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