WA Supreme Court - Breach of Duty on Campus Can Be Proximate Cause of Behavior Off Campus
This case is pretty short, but has huge implications for school districts that have specialized knowledge of a student's bad behavior. In this case, the district new a student, Clark, was a registered sex offender. He also had a history of inappropriate behavior in school, including inappropriate sexual comments, physical assaults, and sexual misconduct going back to seventh grade. The Principal was informed of Clark's status, but no action was taken.
The RCW and the District policy's in place at the time required informing the teachers of Clark's sex offender. The former superintendent of public instruction noted that model policies adopted by most districts includes notification of other school personnel as well.
N.L. skipped class and was led off campus by Clark, where they had intercourse. She was 14, he was 18, a clear case of statutory rape.
The District claimed a lack of proximate causation due to the behavior occurring off campus. The supreme court first noted the generalized duty Districts have to "protect their students from the foreseeable risk of harm the students may inflict on each other." The Court then noted that, regardless of where the harm occurred, there may still have a proximate cause to the breach of the duty by the District to fail to inform the teachers:
We hold that districts have a duty of reasonable care toward the students in their care to protect them from foreseeable dangers that could result from a breach of the district's duty. While the location of the injury is relevant to many elements of the tort, the mere fact the injury occurs off campus is not by itself determinative. As the Idaho Supreme Court noted in a somewhat similar case, "the relevant inquiry is to the location of the negligence rather than the location of the injury." Whether the district breached its duty to take reasonable care to protect N.L. from Clark is a factual question in this case.
The District had also argued that because N.L. had skipped class, it somehow makes the conduct less foreseeable. The Court rejected this argument:
We are left then with the district's argument that 14-year-old N.L.'s decision to leave campus with Clark changes this calculation as a matter of law. But "'[f]oreseeability is normally an issue for the jury."' We see no reason to depart from that rule here. Students have been skipping class "[s]ince at least the days of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer." We cannot say as a matter of law that it is unforeseeable that students will leave campus together.
So what does this mean for districts? In this case, it seems fairly clear issue. The district needs to at the very least follow its own policies and inform the teachers of the student's status. That does not, however, mean it is clear that, had a teacher known, this still wouldn't have happened. But this raises other issues. Does a district need to inform the teacher's of non-criminal past behavior of this nature? What about past drug offenses to prevent students from being harmed by drug use? Does the district now have a duty to inquire into a student's past criminal behavior? This has the potential to go down a fairly slippery slope. For now, however, it is limited to this one scenario.
If you have questions regarding liability of your district, you may contact Issaquah Law Group. We are well versed in school district liability, and can help your district craft policies to assist in effective administration and avoidance of these types of lawsuits.