School Climate & Safety

Supreme Court Declines to Take Up School Bullying Case

By Evie Blad — December 16, 2013 2 min read
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Crossposted from Mark Walsh at the School Law blog.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an appeal seeking to hold a Pennsylvania school district responsible for repeated bullying of a high school student by one of her peers.

A federal appeals court had taken note of school shooting tragedies at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., as symbols of the new dangers in schools. But it nonetheless held that despite compulsory education laws, the Blackhawk school district in Pennsylvania did not have a “special relationship” with its students that would give rise to a duty to protect them from harm from other students.

“Parents ... should be able to send their children off to school with some level of comfort that those children will be safe from bullies,” said the June decision by the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia. “Nonetheless, the Constitution does not provide judicial remedies for every social ill.”

The case involves Brittany Morrow, who in early 2008 at Blackhawk High School in Beaver County, Pa., began facing bullying from a schoolmate that included “racially motivated” threats and physical assaults, court papers say. In one incident, the perpetrator attacked Brittany in the lunchroom and because Brittany defended herself, she was suspended along with her attacker.

For that and other incidents, the perpetrator was charged in juvenile court with assault, making terroristic threats, and harassment. She was adjudicated delinquent and ordered to have no contact with Brittany. The perpetrator was nevertheless allowed to return to Blackhawk High. In the fall of 2008, she allegedly boarded Brittany’s school bus and threatened her, and later elbowed her in the face at a high school football game.

The Morrows said in their suit that school administrators suggested they might want to consider another school for the Brittany and her sister. The parents removed their daughters from Blackhawk High in 2008. They later filed a lawsuit against the Blackhawk school district and an assistant principal for alleged violations of their 14th Amendment substantive-due-process rights.

They lost before a federal district court and the full 3rd Circuit court.

The appeals court ruled 9-5 for the school defendants that there was no “special relationship” between schools and students and 10-4 that legal injuries to the victims were not the result of actions taken by administrators under a “state-created danger” theory of liability.

In their appeal to the Supreme Court in Morrow v. Balaski (Case No. 13-302), the family said school officials “acted to allow the aggressor to return to school following her temporary suspension and despite court orders mandating no contact. They opened the front door of the school to a person they knew would cause harm to the children.”

In a brief opposing high court review, the school district and the assistant principal argued that there was no conflict among the federal appeals courts about the special relationship theory of liability and that no school official acted affirmatively to increase the dangers to Morrow.

The justices declined without comment to take up the appeal.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.