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Supreme Court Refuses 'Duty To Protect' Case

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court last week refused to disturb a federal appeals court ruling that held a high school principal potentially liable for a teacher's sexual abuse of a student.

The principal's appeal had attracted support from both the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National School Boards Association, which had urged the High Court to use the case to clarify the legal responsibility of public school administrators to protect students from harms caused by district employees. (See Education Week, Oct. 5, 1994.)

The appeal was one of about a dozen school-related cases the High Court rejected on Oct. 3, the first day of its new term.

In Lankford v. Do/eI (Case No. 93-1918), the Court turned down the appeal of Eddy Lankford, who has since retired as the principal of Taylor (Tex.) High School. Mr. Lankford is accused in a lawsuit filed by a former Taylor High student of ignoring evidence that she was being sexually abused by one of her teachers.

In a fractured decision last spring that attracted the attention of national administrators' groups, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that students have a right under the 14th Amendment to be free from sexual abuse by school employees. The court held 8 to 6 that school administrators may be held liable if they learn of a pattern of abuse by one of their employees and fail to stop it. (See Education Week, March 16, 1994.)

The Fifth Circuit majority held that Mr. Lankford showed "deliberate indifference" by failing to fully investigate repeated reports of abuse of the student, identified in court papers as Jane Doe.

The court cleared the Taylor school district's superintendent of liability based on the alleged facts of the case, but it ruled that the suit against Mr. Lankford could proceed to trial.

Mr. Lankford appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Fifth Circuit Court's ruling on administrators' liability conflicts with related rulings by other federal appeals courts. The High Court rejected the appeal without comment, clearing the case for a trial.

School Cases Rejected

Also last week, the High Court:

  • Rejected a challenge to Louisiana's high school exit exam by public school students who claimed that it violated the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection of the law because private school students do not have to take the test. The case was Rankins v. Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (No. 94-119).
  • Let stand a ruling by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court that private religious schools must comply with the commonwealth's licensing requirements or else be closed. The case of Association of Christian Academies v. Puerto Rico Department of Education (No. 93-2082) was a potential test of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
  • Refused to consider the appeal of two New Jersey students who were barred from their high school graduation ceremony after admitting they took a sip of champagne on the way to the school prom. The students in Freedman v. Board of Education of the Borough of Park Ridge (No. 94-4) argued that the punishment was unduly harsh and in violation of their right to due process of law.
  • Rejected an appeal from the Ojai, Calif., school district and from California state education officials in a lawsuit over the private placement of a student with a disability. The dispute in Ojai Unified School District v. Jackson (No. 93-2074) concerned government reimbursement of a student's grandparents for his care while he attended a private school for the blind located 80 miles from his parents' home.

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