A Pennsylvania district cannot be held liable for the bullying of a high school student by one of her peers, even though school officials readmitted the perpetrator after she had been found delinquent and continued to bully the victim, a federal appeals court ruled last week.
The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, expressed sympathy for the victim and her family but said that because of well-established precedents, they could not prevail under two distinct theories in holding the district and one of its administrators legally responsible.
The court held 9-5 that despite compulsory education laws, the school did not have a “special relationship” with its students that would give rise to a duty to protect them from harm from other students. And it ruled that legal injuries to the victim were not the result of actions by administrators under a “state-created danger” theory of liability.
The case involves Brittany Morrow, who in early 2008 at Blackhawk High School in Beaver County, Pa., became the target of bullying from a schoolmate that included “racially motivated” threats and physical assaults, court papers say.
The perpetrator was charged in juvenile court with assault, making terroristic threats, and harassment. She was ordered to have no contact with Ms. Morrow. The perpetrator was allowed to return to the school. In fall 2008, she allegedly boarded Ms. Morrow’s school bus and threatened her, and later assaulted her at a football game.
The Morrows sued the Blackhawk school district and an assistant principal for violations of their 14th Amendment substantive-due-process rights, seeking damages that weren’t specified in the 3rd Circuit’s opinion.
A federal district court dismissed the suit, ruling that a 1992 3rd Circuit precedent that is well known in education law circles (D.R. v. Middle Bucks Area Vocational Technical School) established that there is no special relationship between public schools and their students. The district court also rejected the state-created danger theory.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Education Week as Court Rules District Not Liable in Student Bullying