A Hypothetical Analysis – How Evidence of Prior Notice Affects Success of a Civil School Sex Abuse Lawsuit
Sex abuse lawsuits against schools are very common, especially after the Penn State sex abuse scandal. As schools revamp their policies and procedures about reporting sex abuse, more students and teachers alike, have come forward with various allegations of sexual abuse.
For instance, just this past month, a small private school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania acknowledged and apologized for decades old sex abuse by teachers as well as a school founder. According to an online news report, prosecutors are investigating sex abuse reports at the school spanning over 6 decades, most recently in the 1990s and 2000s. Allegations surfaced that school administrators ignored students’ reports. See philly.com, Solebury says school founder abused a student
One of the most common legal issues in civil school sex abuse cases is whether the evidence is strong enough to subject a school entity-defendant to liability. Whether the evidence is sufficient depends on the facts of the case, and more importantly, whether the school is a public school (i.e., government entity) or a private school. School entities are treated differently in civil sex abuse cases with respect to the level of evidence needed to support a finding of liability against the school. As a general rule, sex abuse cases against public schools require stronger evidence of negligence than cases against private schools. Click here to read more about the difference between government and private entities in sex abuse lawsuits.
Prior Reports of Sexual Misconduct in Schools
Below is a hypothetical situation involving sex abuse at a school which is explained in the context of a private school and then a public school.
Facts: A middle school teacher sexually abuses a student over a 2 year period. The student files a lawsuit against the school and abusing teacher. Evidence reveals that the school had received at least 2 prior reports of sexual misconduct against this specific teacher. School officials did nothing about the 2 prior reports.
If the school in the hypothetical example is a private school, such as a parochial school or non-parochial school, then the evidence is probably strong enough to impose liability on the school for failing to protect the student. The theory is that the school had prior knowledge of reports of sexual misconduct involving the specific teacher and because it failed to take any action, the abuse of the student occurred and was allowed to continue for 2 years.
If the school in the hypothetical is a public school, then the evidence is probably not strong enough to impose liability on the school. Public schools can be held liable if there is evidence which shows a willful disregard, or custom of “reckless indifference to instances of known or suspected sexual abuse of students by teachers.” Stoneking v. Bradford Area School District, 1989 3rd Circuit. Willful disregard or reckless indifference basically means that the school appreciated or understood the risk, but proceeded anyway.
The key is showing a pattern of behavior. Two prior reports are probably not enough to hold a public school liable based on Pennsylvania case law. There have been multiple court opinions by Pennsylvania federal courts in public school sex abuse lawsuit cases, and these cases clearly require more than simply 2 prior reports of sexual misconduct. For instance, the Stoneking case involved five prior allegations of sexual misconduct. In addition, the teacher received excellent performance evaluations, and school administrators discouraged students and parents from pursuing complaints. The court there held that there was enough evidence to show a custom of reckless indifference.
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