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Failure To Prevent Bullying Can Prove Costly To School Districts

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Failure To Prevent Bullying Can Prove Costly To School Districts

 

As awareness of school bullying increases, so do parents’ expectations of school districts. With supervisory power over children all day, school districts obviously have a special responsibility to keep children safe from injuries, including harm that can come from other children. School districts are seeing a rise in lawsuits stemming from such injuries.

Recently, a Duval County, Fla., jury returned a $100,000 verdict for a minor who was violently attacked by a known school bully in S.B., by and through her Natural Parent and Guardian, Beverly Cox, v. Duval County School Board. 2013 Jury Verdicts LEXIS 3408.
The offender, a 12-year-old female, was known for her violent tendencies. S.B. sustained a left tibial tubercle avulsion fracture requiring three surgeries on her left knee. The jury awarded her $50,000 for her past pain and suffering and $50,000 for her future pain and suffering.

In New Jersey, a student who was paralyzed as a result of an in-school fight obtained a $16,344,327.15 award against the Irvington Board of Education, in A.P., an Infant by his G/A/L Pamela Patterson v. Irvington Board of Education, 2012 Jury Verdicts LEXIS 14933. The attacker had been involved in fights previously and been expelled. Plaintiff claimed that the school negligently failed to protect A.P. from harm and provide safe supervision and care. Plaintiff also asserted that Irvington had a zero tolerance policy for violence, and the school should have ensured the offender was not allowed back into the building. Irvington was found 80% at fault, while the offender was found 20% at fault.

Likewise, a school district was found liable for harm that came to a student who was attacked on the playground, sustaining an arm fracture with nerve damage in Heidenberg v. Hillel School. 1 Exp. Wit. 230988. A $4,000,000 verdict was awarded by a Florida jury. An Indiana federal judge dismissed a school bullying action following a settlement agreement in M.S. v. Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation, D.H., Brett Herrick, and Colleen K. Herrick, 2011 Jury Verdicts LEXIS 201562. In that case, the parents of the offender were sued as well, and the harm was in the form of mental abuse and intimidation as opposed to physical assault.

A jury can find a school’s negligent supervision and failure to protect particularly egregious in cases involving sexual assaults and/or particularly vulnerable children. A five-year-old girl who was forced to inappropriately touch two classmates and was later expelled obtained a $160,000 settlement with the school district in a Washington Federal Court in A.K., a Minor; and S.K., A.K.’s Mother and Guardian v. Shoreline School District #412, Susanne M. Walker, and Jonathan Nessan, 2012 Jury Verdicts LEXIS 20387. A Florida jury awarded the parents of a special needs child who was sexually assaulted on a school bus $1.7 Million against the Palm Beach County School Board in T.B. and S.W., as Parents and Natural Guardians of Q.B., a Minor, v. The School Board of Palm Beach County, Florida, 2013 Jury Verdicts LEXIS 1270. In a Hawaii Federal Court, a class action was brought by students at a school for the deaf and blind who were sexually assaulted by the “Ringleaders,” a group of students who bullied, terrorized, assaulted, robbed, sodomized, raped, anally raped, gang raped, and sexually attacked other students in Jane Doe, Individually and as Next Friend of John Doe, a minor, and on behalf of a class of persons similarly situated, et al., v. State of Hawaii et al., 2013 Jury Verdicts LEXIS 1466.  The case settled for $5,750,000.

However, school districts cannot prevent every incident of injury in every situation. The school district was found not liable in Shirley Holman, as Parent and Natural Guardian of J.H., and Shirley Holman, Individually, v. The School District of Palm Beach County, Florida, 2012 Jury Verdicts LEXIS 18954. In that case, the student and his mother had complained about his being bullied by a group of students on several prior occasions. On the day of the assault, the student had allegedly warned a teacher that he was going to be attacked after class. The attack resulted in multiple fractures requiring surgery. Nonetheless, the jury found that the school district was not negligent.

These cases and many others reflect the rise in litigation against schools ostensibly due to higher expectations from parents who expect their children to be protected from other students. Findings of negligence and higher awards by juries reflect that society has the same expectation.

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