A kindergarten teacher who allowed a student to be taken from the classroom by a woman claiming to be the child’s mother, who then sexually assaulted the girl, is not entitled to immunity from legal liability, a federal appeals court has ruled.
“In short, we conclude that it is shocking to the conscience that a kindergarten teacher would allow a child in his care to leave his classroom with a complete stranger,” says a unanimous opinion by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia. “Exposing a young child to an obvious danger is the quintessential example of when qualified immunity should not shield a public official from suit.”
The case stems from a day in January 2013, when a woman named Christina Regusters entered the classroom of kindergarten teacher Reginald M. Littlejohn at W.C. Bryant Elementary School in Philadelphia. She claimed to be the mother of a child identified in court papers as N.R. or “Jane.” Littlejohn asked for identification and verification that Jane had permission to leave school. But despite the fact that Regusters could not produce any documentation, the teacher allowed her to take Jane.
Regusters sexually assaulted the child later that day, and a city sanitation worker found Jane on a playground after hearing her cries. Regusters was convicted of kidnapping and sexual assault charges and is serving a 40 years-to-life prison sentence, according to the Harrisburg Patriot-News. (Hat Tip to How Appealing.)
Jane’s family sued the Philadelphia school district, as well as Littlejohn, alleging that the teacher violated the child’s 14th Amendment substantive due-process right to be free from bodily injury under a “state-created danger” theory of liability.
The school district argued that there was no constitutional violation, and even if there was, Littlejohn was entitled to qualified immunity. (The teacher has since died, but his estate is still subject to any damages in the suit.)
Although it is often difficult for plaintiffs to win on the state-created danger theory, both a federal district court, which refused the teacher’s request for immunity, and the 3rd Circuit court found this to be a relatively easy case.
In its Sept. 6 decision in L.R. v. School District of Philadelphia, the 3rd Circuit panel affirmed the district court and agreed that the teacher was not entitled to immunity.
The appeals court rejected the defendants’ arguments that Littlejohn’s alleged actions were a series of inactions, such as a failure to obtain identification from Regusters or a failure to follow school district policy.
The court said this argument failed because in a kindergarten classroom, “the teacher acts as the gatekeeper for very young children who are unable to make reasoned decisions about when and with whom to leave the classroom,” the 3rd Circuit court said. “Viewed in this light, Jane was safe in her classroom unless and until her teacher, Littlejohn, permitted her to leave.”
Thus, this case was different from ones in which the courts had rejected state-created danger, including a 3rd Circuit decision in 2013 that refused to hold school officials responsible for bullying of a student by other students, the panel said.
“Here, it was foreseeable that releasing a young child to a stranger could result in harm to the child,” the court said. “This inherent risk is not only a matter of experience as a teacher in charge of a kindergarten classroom, but ... it is also a matter of common sense.”
The suit by Jane’s family goes back to the district court, but schools everywhere are free to remind their teachers about the “common sense” lesson.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.