Pennsylvania’s compulsory-attendance law does not create a special custodial relationship between public schools and pupils that would make school officials liable for an alleged sexual assault of two female students by male students at a vocational school, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit last month upheld a three-judge panel’s decision from late last year that officials of the Middle Bucks Area Vocational Technical School could not be sued under federal civil-rights law over the alleged harassment and assault of the two female students in a graphics classroom by boys in the class.
The teenage girls’ lawsuit asserted that the teacher and other school officials should have prevented the pattern of alleged abuse by the boys. They charged that the teacher often lost control over the classroom and that school officials knew of some of the misconduct but did nothing to correct the situation.
The appeals court ruled 7 to 5 in D.R. v. Middle Bucks Area Vocational Technical School that the state’s attendance law does not restrict a student’s personal freedom so as to create a special custodial relationship, such as that between the state and a prisoner or a foster child. Thus, the school officials’ alleged inaction was not held to be a constitutional violation.
The court acknowledged the “shocking nature’’ of the charges but, citing one plaintiff’s case in support of its reasoning, held that “the state did nothing to restrict’’ her “liberty after school hours and thus did not deny her meaningful access to sources of help.’'
Protests from civil-rights groups have prompted Georgia officials to modify a system for tracking students through their Social Security numbers.
A law passed by the legislature this year requires districts to ask students for their Social Security numbers to enable the state to better track students and dropout rates.
But civil-rights groups, including the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, have criticized the measure as likely to have an adverse impact on homeless children who lack documentation and immigrant children who may fear deportation.
The state school board last month responded to such criticism by ruling that schools should not ask students for their numbers if their parents object.
The civil-rights groups, however, argue that districts and individual schools have been ignoring the board’s directive and turning children away if they do not provide their Social Security numbers.
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 1992 edition of Education Week as State News Roundup