‘Safe Schools’ Suits Seek To Test Limits Of California Law

By William Snider — September 17, 1986 5 min read

More than a dozen legal actions have been filed recently against California school districts as lawyers seek to test the limits of the state’s unique “safe schools” constitutional amendment.

Plaintiffs in the cases, which stem from a variety of incidents involving students on school premises, are arguing that districts and, in some cases, staff members failed to provide a “safe, secure, and peaceful” school environment as required by a 1982 amendment to the state constitution.

Most of the cases have been filed in the wake of a state-court decision last May that provided the first judicial interpretation of schools’ liability under the provision. (See Education Week, May 28,1986.)

Superior Court Judge Richard Bartalini ruled in a case involving the Oakland public schools that districts no longer have to be found negligent to be liable for damages in school-safety cases. Rather, he held, they can be be liable if it is proved that they failed to use ''reasonable diligence” to ensure that a school is safe.

Although observers note that it is difficult to determine the exact number of new or amended legal actions that raise issues similar to those in the Oakland case, they say such cases include the following:

  • The parents of a 5th grader, contending that school officials failed to protect their son from verbal abuse by other pupils, have filed a claim for $351,000 in damages against the San Francisco Unified School District.
  • A class-action suit brought on behalf of 15 students against the Los Angeles Unified School District and school officials has been amended to include a charge that the district violated the students’ right to a safe school. The original claim sought $110 million from the district for failing to remove a teacher who had been accused of sexually molesting students.
  • Officials of the Colton Joint Unified School District, near San Bernadino, this summer refused a claim for $6 million in damages brought on behalf of three students who claim they were sexually assaulted by a teacher. The lawyer for the plaintiffs said last week that he will file a suit charging the district and school personnel with negligence and constitutional violations.
  • Seven separate lawsuits charging school districts with infringement of students’ right to attend safe schools have been filed in Sacramento County alone.
  • ‘Evolving Duty’

    “The message these lawsuits carry is very simple,” argues George Nicholson, director and chief counsel for the Sacramento-based National School Safety Center. “Schools can pay now, for effective risk-management and loss-prevention programs, or they can pay later, in very large and disruptive judgments which can only in part repay those victimized by institutional inertia.”

    The threat of lawsuits should help school officials recognize that “they have an evolving duty to know of, warn about, and protect students from campus crime and violence,” he said.

    Mr. Nicholson’s sentiments echo those expressed by Judge Bartalini in his opinion last spring in Hosemann v. Oakland Unified School District, which cleared the way for the parents of a boy who had been assaulted by another pupil to seek damages from the district.

    The safe-schools amendment, the judge wrote, imposes “an affirmative duty on school districts to curb crime and violence.

    While his decision applies only to the Oakland district-which has filed an appeal in the case--lawyer in similar cases agree that the state supreme court will eventually establish a statewide standard for enforcing the safe-schools provision.

    Safety Plan Ordered

    As part of the Oakland schools’ “affirmative duty” to provide a safe campus, Judge Bartalini ordered district officials to prepare a plan to curb violence in the city’s schools. District officials, although they dispute his authority to impose such an order while the decision is being appealed, have taken steps to create such a plan.

    Last week, the Oakland school board approved the “concept” of a set of safety measures recommended by a citizens’ task force, and allocated $50,000 toward implementing them, according to Marian K. Magid, a district spokesman.

    Legal experts in the ‘state department of education have expressed concern that judicially ordered security plans could divert financial resources from schools’ instructional programs, according to Joseph T. McGhee, a consultant with the department’s office of school climate. Judge Bartalini, addressing such concerns in his ruling, stated: “Denying a constitutional right on the grounds of inadequate resources cannot be justified.”

    ‘Risk Management’

    Meanwhile, experts on school liability said they are urging California districts to develop “risk management” programs-similar to those common in private industry to reduce their liability before the number of successful damage claims reaches crisis proportions.

    “The problem is that we wait until something is actually burning before we roll the fire truck out,” said John R. Burton, a liability consultant for many districts in the state. “We’re not in a preventative mode.”

    Some insurance companies have begun working with the National School Safety Center and individual districts to draw up risk-management guidelines designed to meet the requirements of the safe-schools amendment.

    Bruce M. Horton, a vice president with Industrial Indemnity Company, which insures more than half of the state’s districts, noted his company has not raised premiums as a result of the new liability cases.

    In addition to the efforts undertaken by the insurance industry, state lawmakers have adopted a number of measures aimed at improving schools’ ability to meet their increased responsibility for campus safety.

    The legislature recently passed a bill that require’ California’s 7,000 school principals-in cooperation with teachers, parents, students, and school peace officers-to develop and Implement disciplinary plans and procedures by December 1987.

    Lawmakers this month adopted a resolution proclaiming this school year “California’s year of safe and drug-free schools and communities.” The resolution includes language urging government and business leaders, especially those in the insurance industry, to work with schools to promote the implementation of the safe-schools amendment.

    And under a 1984 bill that took effect this past school year, all school districts must report crimes occurring on school grounds to the state department of education every six months.

    Otherwise, state officials are taking a “wait and see” attitude toward the possible ramifications of the safe-schools mandate, said Mr. McGhee, who has been tracking the issue for the education department.

    Because so many school-safety cases are still pending in the courts, he said, “it would be premature to speculate” about the ultimate effects of the privision on conditions in the state’s schools.

    A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 1986 edition of Education Week as ‘Safe Schools’ Suits Seek To Test Limits Of California Law