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Court Holds Pa. District Not Liable in Sex-Abuse Case

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A driver for a private bus company contracted by a school district cannot be held liable under federal civil-rights law for his alleged sexual abuse of pupils, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The 3-to-0 decision by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit is the latest in a series of important rulings in the past year on the subject of public school officials' duty to protect students from sexual abuse in the school or by school employees.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand two appeals-court rulings that reached opposite conclusions on whether a special custodial relationship exists between districts and pupils that requires school officials to protect students from harm. (See Education Week, Jan. 27, 1993.)

In the most recent ruling in the Third Circuit, in Black v. Indiana Area School District, several elementary schoolchildren alleged they were abused by a bus driver in the Indiana, Pa., district between 1984 and 1988. Parents of the alleged victims sued the district, its superintendent, the private bus company, and the driver, under the federal law known as Section 1983, which prohibits infringement of a person's civil rights "under color of law.''

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, and the Third Circuit panel affirmed the dismissal on Jan. 29.

The court said that the key issue for the liability of the bus company and its driver was whether they acted under state authority simply because they were contracted to a public school district. The panel held that they were not "state actors,'' and thus Section 1983 could not be applied.

The court reasoned that, while the bus company and driver were carrying out a government program, "they were not performing a function that has been traditionally the exclusive prerogative of the state.''

The court said the superintendent was not liable based on a review of two Third Circuit precedents, including the one in D.R. v. Middle Bucks Area Vocational Technical School, another case of alleged abuse, in which the full Third Circuit said no special relationship exists between districts and students, and thus no duty to protect students from harm.

In his concurrence, Circuit Judge Anthony J. Scirica agreed that the defendants should not be liable, he said was troubled by this case and others that "fall through the crack,'' making Section 1983 "less than the powerful tool to vindicate constitutional rights it was designed to be.''--M.W.

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