When educators are sued for situations or circumstances that occur in the course of their employment, there are a number of potential protections that can shield them from liability. A recent decision by the Missouri Court of Appeals analyzed the interaction of two of these protections when a student is hurt at school. See M.C.-B v. Hazelwood Sch. Dist., No. ED99601 (Mo. App. E.D. Nov. 12, 2013). The case illustrates the different immunities that may apply to educators and how those immunities interact with Missouri law. To find out more, hit the jump…
As is nearly always the case when a school district or educator is sued, the underlying facts of Hazelwood are tragic. A student, returning to her classroom after meeting with the principal, was abducted and sexually assaulted by four other students who had been released from class to put away their backpacks. The parents of the victim filed suit against the district, the principal, and several teachers, claiming general negligence and negligent supervision. The trial court granted judgment for the defendants and the parents appealed.
On appeal, the Court reviewed the interaction between “official immunity” and the immunity granted by the federal Paul D. Coverdell Teacher Protection Act (“Coverdell Act”). The doctrine of “official immunity” is a judicially created immunity that protects an educator from liability for negligence when they are performing discretionary (as opposed to ministerial) duties. This means that an educator can only be liable for “negligence” if they are performing an action that doesn’t require use of their professional expertise or judgment. If they are exercising professional discretion then they can only be liable for harm they cause intentionally or recklessly.
The Coverdell Act is a federal statute that provides complete immunity for any act or omission of an educator, so long as two elements are met: (1) the educator must have been acting within the scope of their employment, and (2) their actions must have been done in conformity to all relevant laws relating to “efforts to control, discipline, expel, or suspend a student or maintain order or control in the classroom or school.” See 20 U.S. C. § 6736.
At issue in Hazelwood was how these two types of immunity applied to a Missouri statute that requires police notification of certain actions by students. See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 167.117.1. Because the statute is an important aspect of the decision, I’ll quote it at length:
In any instance when any person is believed to have committed an act which if committed by an adult would be assault in the first, second or third degree, sexual assault, or deviate sexual assault against a pupil or school employee, while on school property, including a school bus in
service on behalf of the district, or while involved in school activities, the principal shall immediately report such incident to the appropriate local law enforcement agency and to the superintendent.
The Court noted that there was no case law or authority available interpreting the interaction between this Missouri law and either form of educator immunity. Nevertheless, the Court held that a plain reading of the statute indicates that it is a law in furtherance of “efforts to control, discipline, expel, or suspend a student or maintain order or control in the classroom or school.” Therefore, in order for an educator to claim immunity under the Coverdell Act they would have to show that they acted in conformity to this reporting statute.
Unfortunately, the case had been dismissed at such an early stage by the trial court that the appellate Court was unable to determine whether the educators had appropriately followed the reporting statute. Additionally, the Court could not determine whether the educators had been exercising discretion or merely completing ministerial duties. Therefore, the Court sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.
While Hazelwood will continue to be litigated potentially for years to come, the appellate court has drawn a line in the sand particularly for principals who want to claim immunity under the Coverdell Act. If a student commits assault, sexual assault, or deviate sexual assault against a pupil or school employee while at school, the principal must report it to the police or they could be personally liable for any additional harm done.