There appears to be a rise in reports of sex abuse committed by school employees like teachers, coaches, principals, etc. One reason for this is the fact that over the last decade, media reports of molestation cases have become more common. The result is increased awareness—people are more comfortable having discussions about sexual abuse and assault. The stigma that was once attached to victims of sex abuse and assault has faded. Sex abuse is often discussed in homes and schools. As a result, victims of sex abuse in school settings are more inclined to speak up and report the abuse. Hence, the rise in reports of sex abuse nationwide and across New Jersey.
Pennsylvania Public School Sex Assault Law Update – Federal Court Rules Against Philadelphia Public School [Last month (9-6-16), a federal court in Pennsylvania upheld a lawsuit against a school in Philadelphia. Applying the state created danger theory of liability, the court held that a student, who was allowed to be removed from class by an unknown adult and later sexually assaulted, could sue the school.]
Schools in New Jersey – Liable for Sex Assault of a Student?
Statute of Limitations Issues
In cases when a student is sexually assaulted in a school setting in New Jersey, one legal issue that must be resolved is whether the school bears any liability. At the outset, it’s important to note that in the vast majority of school sex abuse cases, the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits will come into play. Oftentimes, victims of abuse wait years before coming forward, and with good reason. Many victims simply cannot recognize the abuse, as abuse, until well into adulthood.
For example, a young student is groomed for sexual abuse by her middle school teacher. The abuse occurs over the course of several months. The student graduates and the abuse stops. The student moves away and goes on with her life. Ten years later, after suffering years of anxiety, depression and other issues, she realizes that her teacher sexually abused her. She hears that the teacher is still teaching young students and decides to take legal action. However, whether she can file a civil lawsuit depends on when she discovered the abuse and its causal relationship to her mental and emotional trauma.
New Jersey law is unique on this point. Its statute of limitations law, which is applicable in child molestation cases, is fluid, not fixed like most other states. Pennsylvania, for instance, has a rigid statute of limitations law for child molestation lawsuits—12 years after the victim turns 18 years old (i.e., the victim’s 30th birthday).
Assuming there are no statute of limitations issues, the issue of school liability for student sex abuse depends on complex legal and factual issues such as the nature of the school setting and whether federal law applies.
Nature of the School Setting – “In Loco Parentis”
Under the New Jersey Child Sexual Abuse Act (Act), persons or entities which stand in loco parentis to the student can be held liable for knowingly allowing abuse to occur. This is clear in the definitions section of the Act, which can be found at New Jersey Statutes § 2A:61B-1 et seq. Under the definition of “sexual abuse,”
A parent, resource family parent, guardian or other person standing in loco parentis within the household who knowingly permits or acquiesces in sexual abuse by any other person also commits sexual abuse, except that it is an affirmative defense if the parent, resource family parent, guardian or other person standing in loco parentis was subjected to, or placed in, reasonable fear of physical or sexual abuse by the other person so as to undermine the person’s ability to protect the child. (emphasis added)
In loco parentis is a legal term which means that someone stands in the place of the parent. New Jersey courts have applied the above definition to schools. For example, in Hardwicke v. American Boychoir School (New Jersey Supreme Court, 2006), the court held that the Act applied to a boarding school. Since the Hardwicke case, there have been a handful of similar cases, most of which were decided in the school’s favor. In a recent case, J.P. v. Smith, et al. (March 2016), the New Jersey Superior Court held that the school did not stand in loco parentis.
Although recent court cases in New Jersey have been decided in favor of schools and against victims, it’s clear that the Act will apply where there is sufficient evidence that the school did in fact stand in loco parentis to the student. There must be evidence that the school provided food, shelter, educational instruction, recreational activities and emotional support, as indicated in the Hardwicke case.
Federal Law – Application to Government Entities
Under the due process clause of the state and federal constitutions, government entities such as public schools, towns, cities and counties can be held liable for actively creating situations which result in injury to an individual. The legal principle known as the snake pit theory often applies in situations where a government employee knowingly creates a situation which results in sexual assault or abuse. For instance, a juvenile detention center run by a local government entity could be held liable for failing to investigate reports that a detention center employee is sexually assaulting a detainee. In essence, the allegation would be that the detention center actively created a dangerous situation by failing to take appropriate action to prevent the abuse. Get more legal info about federal law in school sex abuse cases.
About Our Sex Abuse Victims Law Practice – New Jersey Cases (Offices in Cherry Hill, Atlantic City & Iselin)
Our law firm represents victims of abuse in civil lawsuits against those responsible including perpetrators and any entity which failed to stop or prevent the abuse. With offices in Cherry Hill, Atlantic City and Iselin, our New Jersey attorneys handle sex abuse lawsuits throughout the state. Call for a free evaluation. Click To Call
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Page last updated: September 14, 2016