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Court Declines To Weigh Schools' 'Duty To Protect' Students

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WASHINGTON--The U.S. Supreme Court last week refused to weigh the issue of whether the U.S. Constitution imposes a special duty on public school officials to protect students from such harms as sexual assaults by teachers or other pupils.

The High Court on Jan. 19 declined to review lower-court rulings in two separate cases that considered whether state compulsory-education laws created a special legal relationship requiring that schools protect students from harm.

In a case from Pennsylvania, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit had ruled that school officials were not liable for failing to protect two female students from alleged sexual assaults by male students at a vocational school. The court upheld the dismissal of the female students' lawsuit.

The female students appealed the ruling to the High Court in D.R. v. Middle Bucks Area Vocational Technical School (Case No. 92-816).

In a Texas case, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reached an opposite conclusion in a case involving the alleged sexual abuse of a female student by a male teacher.

Under the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment, the panel held, school administrators "have a duty to protect schoolchildren from hazards which the school officials know or should know.'' The court reinstated the girl's lawsuit and ordered a trial.

Two administrators in the case, Caplinger v. Doe (No. 92-908), appealed the Fifth Circuit's ruling to the High Court.

School administrators have expressed fear that the ruling could lead to more lawsuits against districts and expose them to costly damage awards in cases involving not only sexual assaults, but also accidental deaths and gang-related violence involving students. (See Education Week, Dec. 2, 1992.)

"Given the perceived 'deep pockets' of school districts and their administrators, plaintiffs will seek damages in federal courts under [civil-rights law] for injuries to students inflicted by the perpetrators, who are 'judgment proof,''' the National School Boards Association said in a brief urging the High Court to review the Texas case.

Conflicting Opinions

Given the fact that there appears to be a conflict among federal appeals courts on the central question of whether compulsory-education laws create a special "custodial'' relationship between schools and students, some legal experts expected the High Court to agree to review at least one of the cases dealing with the duty-to-protect issue.

Two other federal appeals courts have sided with the Third Circuit Court in holding that state attendance laws do not mean that students are in the functional custody of public school officials in the same way that prisoners are in a custodial relationship with prison officials.

The Fifth Circuit Court had ruled that such attendance laws do place pupils in the functional custody of school officials during school hours.

The Supreme Court declined to review the two cases without comment, as is the Court's practice.

Although the High Court is often eager to settle conflicting federal appeals-court decisions, observers point out that the Court will often let some issues percolate in the lower courts. Also, they note, the Justices may reject some cases that otherwise meet their standards for review because of the perceived lack of a "clean'' factual record.

The respondents in the two school cases--school officials in the Pennsylvania case and the alleged sexual-assault victim in the Texas case--argued in papers filed with the High Court that the two appeals courts were not truly in conflict on the duty-to-protect issues because of a key factual difference in the cases, and thus the rulings should not be reviewed.

The chief difference was that, in the Pennsylvania case, the alleged assault was committed by students, while in the Texas case, a teacher was accused.

In addition, the respondents pointed out, the teacher is clearly a government employee, so the legal issues surrounding his superiors' actions in dealing with him or with reports of the alleged abuse differ from those involving actions by other students.

Special-Education Case

Meanwhile last week, the U.S. Justice Department filed a brief suggesting that the High Court not review a special-education case involving reimbursement by school districts for private education placements.

The High Court had asked the Justice Department to provide its views on the appeal in Florence County School District v. Carter, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the district must reimburse parents who placed their child in a nonapproved private school after the child failed to make progress under his "individualized educational program.''

The Justice Department said the lower-court ruling did not conflict with the High Court's precedents in special-education cases, and thus did not merit review.

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