Teachers and teacher aides dealing with violent students may feel there are few resources to correct the students’ behavior and protect themselves. Administrators, tired of dealing with the same students repeatedly, will leave the classroom staff to fend for themselves and police and prosecutors are reluctant to press criminal charges against minors. Additionally, school employees are often reluctant to protect themselves as that, almost unerringly, leads to a hotline report of child abuse or neglect. This leaves many school employees facing a workplace where they can routinely expect to be punched, bit, scratched, and spit on. However, a recent decision from the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, may provide some remedy when the student’s parents have refused to take action to alleviate the situation. See Ridgell v. McDermott, No. ED100402 (Mo. App. E.D. April 15, 2014).
Hit the jump for all the details…
In Ridgell, a teacher aide (TA) brought a lawsuit against the parents of a student after suffering a stream of physical abuse at the student’s hands. The TA alleged that, on multiple occasions, she had been punched, grabbed, tackled, and kicked by the student, along with several situations where the student had attempted to grab, tackle, or kick her. Additionally, the TA alleged that the student had a general history of violence with all school personnel that included kicking one individual in the knee requiring surgery, throwing scissors at an employee lacerating her neck, and kicking, biting, and punching school personnel and students. The incident that precipitated the lawsuit included the student pulling the TA down, pinning her to the ground, and then kicking her in the head. The TA alleged that the parents were aware of the student’s behavior and refused to take any action, even at the recommendation of the school, to minimize or eliminate the child’s violent behaviors. At trial, the court dismissed the claims against the parents (leaving a claim against the student intact) and the TA appealed.
On appeal, the court reviewed Missouri’s law on negligent supervision to see if the parents could be held liable. The court first noted that a parent is not liable for the acts of their children just because they are parents. Instead, a parent can only be liable if they knew that their child was dangerous and failed to act reasonably in attempting to restrain the child from injuring others. The court rejected an argument by the parents that they were not responsible for supervision and control of their child during school hours and found that the long history of violent acts alleged by the TA could provide the parents with knowledge of their child’s dangerous behavior. The court noted that there is no case law on a parent’s duty to supervise and restrain a student in the context of a school, but nevertheless held that the TA had stated several actions the parents could have taken that would have minimized the likelihood of violence, including obtaining or modifying medication for the student, providing counseling to the student, following school recommendations on how to handle the student, and removing the student from school until his violent tendencies had been addressed. Therefore, the court held that the TA had alleged sufficient facts that a jury could find the parents had knowledge of their child’s dangerous nature and failed to act to minimize it. The court did not render a final decision as to whether the parents were liable for the student’s behavior but did reverse the dismissal of the TA’s claims against the parents and allowed the case to proceed to trial.
The Ridgell case is still far from over but the appellate court’s decision opens the door to holding parents liable for the violence of their child, even at school. However, the true benefit of the Ridgell decision should not be in multiplying litigation between school employees and parents, an expensive process fraught with drawbacks. Instead, hopefully districts will see Ridgell and use it as incentive to take student violence against school employees seriously and recommit themselves to doing everything possible to provide a safe workplace to school personnel.
If you are a Missouri NEA member and have been the victim of violence in your school, you should contact your UniServ Director / Union Representative as soon as possible. There are more resources available to deal with school violence than you may think (even short of a lawsuit) and we can help you stay safe.