Court to Weigh Municipal Liability for Private Harm

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In a move of potential significance to public schools nationwide, the U.S. Supreme Court last week accepted an appeal involving the right of individuals to sue when government entities fail to protect them from violence by private citizens.

During a week in which the court’s normal workings were overshadowed by the illness of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the justices also let stand a lower-court ruling against a former school principal from Missouri who claimed her firing was motivated in part by racial animus.

The case the high court agreed to hear involves Jessica Gonzales, who sued the town of Castle Rock, Colo., after the local police failed to enforce a restraining order against her estranged husband, who then murdered their three young daughters.

While not directly related to schools, the case may prompt the high court to revisit issues that were central to its 1989 decision in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, which is often cited by school districts in civil lawsuits filed by students or others harmed in a school setting. The 1989 case was brought on behalf of a Wisconsin boy, Joshua DeShaney, who was returned by a county social-services agency to his abusive father and then beaten so badly by him that he became profoundly retarded.

In a finding that districts often rely on as a defense, the court held in DeShaney that, in general, a state entity’s failure to protect an individual from private violence is not a violation of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process under the law. The court also carved out some exceptions to that principle, though, and that led the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, to rule in 2002 that Ms. Gonzales’ lawsuit against the town could go forward.

The Supreme Court’s Nov. 1 decision to hear the appeal in Town of Castle Rock, Colo. v. Gonzales (Case No. 04-278) does not necessarily mean that it will reverse the 10th Circuit ruling. But it suggests that the justices may have more to say on the circumstances in which state entities may be found liable for acts of violence that occur on their watch.

“It is a case involving the governmental duty to protect individuals, … which can come into play when you’re thinking about schools protecting students in their care,” said Julie Underwood, the general counsel of the National School Boards Association. “It’s a case that we will be watching.”

Principal’s Case Rejected

Separately, the high court let stand a ruling against Karol K. Howard, a former elementary school principal in the Columbia, Mo., school district.

Ms. Howard argued unsuccessfully in the lower courts that she was removed from her principalship and ultimately fired because she pushed her school’s white teachers to end what she viewed as discriminatory practices against students who were African-American, came from low-income families, or had learning disabilities.

Contending that it was her vocal advocacy for such students that led to her firing in 2001, Ms. Howard maintained that the 16,000-student district had violated her First Amendment right to free speech.

District officials denied the charges, arguing that Ms. Howard lost her job because of leadership and communication problems. Last April, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, unanimously upheld a lower court’s dismissal of her suit.

On Nov. 1, the high court declined without comment to take up Howard v. Columbia Public School District (No. 04-209).

Meanwhile, analysts were abuzz about the prospect of an impending vacancy on the court, following Chief Justice Rehnquist’s Nov. 1 announcement that he would not be returning to the bench that day, as he had hoped. The 80-year-old justice underwent a tracheotomy on Oct. 23 in connection with a diagnosis of thyroid cancer.

In a statement, the chief justice said he would keep working on court business at home, while continuing radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Coming on the eve of the presidential election, the announcement heightened speculation that changes might be coming to a court that has seen no turnover in a decade.

The choice of a successor to Chief Justice Rehnquist would be of deep interest to educators, given the Supreme Court’s powerful voice on a variety of school-related issues, including controversies over the relationship between religion and public education.

Vol. 24, Issue 11, Page 24

Published in Print: November 10, 2004, as Court to Weigh Municipal Liability for Private Harm
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