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Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Rules That School District Administrators Can Be Liable for Failing to Prevent Teacher’s Physical Abuse of a Student

September 3, 2020

In a decision dated August 28, 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that school district faculty/administrators could be liable for a former teacher's physical abuse against a student where the teacher had an extensive history of physical abuse that was ignored or inadequately investigated. The Court reversed the decision of the Western District of Michigan and ruled that a parent, on behalf of her son, could continue her lawsuit against a school district and multiple school faculty/administrators, including the superintendent.

The parent's suit alleged that the defendants were responsible for a former teacher's physical abuse of her son. The parent alleged that while in class, the former teacher grabbed her son by the arm and threw him down on the floor, causing him to crash into a bookshelf and hit his head on a trash can. Specifically, the parent alleged that the district and its faculty/administrators purposefully ignored the possibility that the teacher, who had a long history of abusing students, would continue this pattern and abuse her son.

The Sixth Circuit pointed to multiple instances in which the district was put on notice of the former teacher's past misconduct. These instances included: eyewitness reports of slamming students into tables, yanking students out their seats, pushing a student to the floor, scratching a student’s face, squeezing and shaking a student by the head and neck, allowing a student to defecate in his clothing rather than permitting him to go to the bathroom, pressing on a student's jaw to get her to stop making noises, and other reports of use of physical force against students. The parent was able to demonstrate that former supervisors – principals, human resources, and the director of special education – of the former teacher failed to follow up on reports of past abusive behavior. The principals shredded reports and investigation files. 

The Court held that these allegations were sufficient to find that the administrators failed to address the possibility of future abuse by the teacher. Further, the Court noted that it is clearly foreseeable that if a teacher's ongoing physical abuse of students is not addressed, the teacher will continue to physically abuse students.

Similarly, the parent alleged that a separate district administrator was aware of multiple instances of physical abuse but failed to notify law enforcement, child protective services, or the victim's guardians. Had this administrator notified the proper authorities, the alleged abusive teacher could have been disciplined and/or terminated, potentially preventing the abuse in this case.

Finally, the Court addressed arguments that certain district administrators could not be liable because they reported the alleged abuse to the district's human resources department. While various incidents of alleged abuse were reported to human resources, the evidence suggests that the former teacher continued to engage in physically abusive behavior. Therefore, the Court found that the administrators that continued to report incidents to human resources could still be liable. If a defendant knows her previous action to address instances of abuse is ineffective, simply repeating the same actions will not absolve her from liability. 

If you have questions about this decision or other issues related to supervisory authority, please contact Marshall W. Grate or any member of Clark Hill’s Education Law Group.

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