Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Court dismisses bullying lawsuit

A U.S. District Court Judge in northeast Ohio has dismissed a case brought against the Mentor School Board, Superintendent, high school principal, and others.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of of a student who committed suicide, by his parents, alleging violations of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The complaint alleged that after months of persistent bullying in math class, the student shot himself. The school's failure to prevent this bullying violated the student's right to safety, and his parent's right to raise and educate their child in a safe environment, the complaint alleged.

U.S. District Court Judge Donald C. Nugent wrote "while it may seem that a
school, of all places, should provide a safe and supportive environment for the children in its care, neither party has cited any relevant law that would support a finding that the school was in a 'special relationship'" with the student to make the district liable for injury to the student. Furthermore, he wrote, "although it is
certainly reasonable for parents to expect that the school will do its best to protect their children while they are under the school’s supervision, the law does not elevate this expectation to a constitutional guarantee." Additionally, the court held, pursuant to federal precedent, that schools can only be held responsible for injury when they act affirmatively to put someone in danger, not for their failure to act.

Accordingly, the Judge dismissed the federal constitutional claims with prejudice (meaning that they cannot be brought again, absent a reversal on appeal) and dismissed the state law claims for negligence and bad faith, but left open the possibility that those claims could be brought in state court, if appropriate.

The ruling certainly has the potential to negatively impact, but not foreclose, school bullying lawsuits brought by students and their parents in Ohio. However, the court made clear that, at least as it stands now, generally, there is no special relationship between students and schools that would give rise to a constitutional right of protection to students. Whether or not the school acted affirmatively to cause the danger, however, will likely depend on the particular facts of each case.