Boarding School Did Not Breach Duty Of Care Owed To Student

Category: Private Education Matters
Date: Jun 30, 2020 01:17 PM

Abrielle Kira Bartels began attending the Milton Hershey School, a cost-free, not-for-profit, residential academy, in kindergarten.  When Abrielle was in eighth grade, she began meeting with the School’s psychologist, Dr. Benjamin Herr and expressed feelings of anxiety, depression, and self-harm.  She told Dr. Herr that she had been experiencing suicidal ideations since at least sixth grade and had attempted suicide in the past.  Abrielle also shared specific information about past suicide attempts and that she planned to stab herself with a knife in the near future.  Because of her statements, Abrielle was repeatedly admitted to the School’s student health center, but Abrielle continued to express “intense suicidal ideations.”  As a result, Dr. Herr drove Abrielle to an inpatient mental health facility, where Abrielle’s mother, Julie Wartluft, signed Abrielle into the facility.

After Abrielle was discharged from the inpatient mental health facility, she returned to the School, but her suicidal thoughts continued.  She was once again admitted to the School’s student health center where she was assessed by a psychiatric consultant.  The psychiatric consultant recommended that Abrielle be admitted to a psychiatric hospital.  Dr. Herr drove Abrielle to a psychiatric hospital, where Wartluft met them.  Abrielle signed herself in for voluntary hospitalization.

Dr. Herr and Abrielle’s treating physicians at the psychiatric hospital consulted about Abrielle’s condition during her stay at the hospital.  Ultimately, it was decided that the School could not meet Abrielle’s psychological needs and Abrielle would be released to her mother to live at home until she was stable enough to return to the School.  The School’s home-life administrator determined that Abrielle was not permitted to attend her on-campus eighth-grade graduation or after-party.  Ten days after Abrielle was released to her mother, she hanged herself in a bedroom closet and passed away.    

Abrielle’s parents, Wartluft and Frederick Bartels, Jr., sued the School.  Wartluft and Bartels alleged that the School, among other things, failed to comply with their own applicable policies and procedures for dismissing a student for psychological reasons when they dismissed Abrielle from the School and barred her from attending her eighth-grade graduation and the after-party.  Wartluft and Bartels also alleged that the School was negligent when is dismissed Abrielle from their care thereby forcing her into an unstable family environment that resulted in her death, and alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress, wrongful death, and survival actions.  Wartluft and Bartels filed a motion for summary judgment in an effort to obtain a ruling in their favor on the merits of their allegations without having to go to trial.  The School similarly filed a motion for summary judgment in an effort to dispose of the parents’ claims without a trial.  

In ruling on the motions, the court first analyzed the parents’ claim that the School failed to comply with their own policies and procedures when they dismissed Abrielle and prevented her from attending the eighth-grade graduation and after-party.  The parents asserted that the School had a six-step procedure for dismissing a student from the school for psychological reasons and that the School only partially complied with one of those steps.  In response, the School asserted that they did follow applicable policies and procedures.  The School also asserted that they did not dismiss Abrielle from School, but instead placed her on a temporary leave of absence.  The court determined that a factual dispute existed as to whether the School followed their applicable policies and procedures and as to whether Abrielle was dismissed from school or on a leave of absence.  Because of this factual dispute and some procedural issues with the parents’ motion, the School denied the motions as to this claim and let the claim proceed to trial.

Next, the court analyzed the parents’ claim that the School was “negligent in dismissing Abrielle from their care and in barring her from her eighth-grade graduation and from the subsequent after-party at her student family home thereby forcing her into an assertedly unstable home environment which resulted in her death.”  The School asserted that the duty of care a school owes to its students “is coextensive with the physical custody and control over the child and does not ordinarily extend beyond the area of control of school authority so that the duty ceases when the child passes out of the orbit of the [school’s] authority.”  Accordingly, the School contended that its duty of care to Abrielle ended when she checked into the psychiatric hospital, so the parents’ negligence claim was without merit. 

The parents contended that the duty of care a school owes to its students comes “‘with an attendant independent social obligation to provide reasonable care for and to maintain the safety of vulnerable minor children in its care’—a duty which does not end simply because the student leaves campus.”  The parents asserted that the School had a continued duty to care for Abrielle after she checked into the psychiatric hospital and after she was released into her parents’ care. 

The court disagreed with the parents’ expansive interpretation of the duty of care a school owes to its students.  The court explained that finding such an expansive duty would mean that the School “could have been liable for practically anything that occurred to Abrielle, or that Abrielle did to another, at a time when, arguably, the [School] had no way of even knowing what she was doing.”  The court determined that the School’s duty of care ended when Abrielle was admitted to the psychiatric hospital and then discharged into her parents’ care.  The court granted the School’s motion for summary judgment as to the parents’ negligence claim.

The court also found that summary judgment in the School’s favor was appropriate as to the parents’ intentional infliction of emotional distress, wrongful death, and survival actions.  The court noted that “Abrielle’s death is manifestly heartbreaking,” but that it “simply [was] not an actionable demise.”

Wartluft v. Milton Hershey School and School Trust (M.D. Pa., Mar. 18, 2020, No. 1:16-CV-2145) 2020 WL 1285332.

NOTE:

While this case is not binding in California, California schools owe a duty of care to their students to protect them from foreseeable harm during curricular activities or when in an ”in loco parentis” status, such as students attending boarding school.  Accordingly, schools must follow the policies and procedures they have in place to protect student safety and take appropriate steps to protect students from foreseeable harm during school-sponsored activities where the school has some measure of control over students and the activity.  The court in Wartluft v. Milton Hershey School and School Trust noted that if the School had not provided Abrielle with an opportunity to seek professional medical help, they would have unquestionably breached their duty.  This case further highlights the important need to follow all policies and procedures and to carefully document such compliance.  In this decision, the case can proceed on the issue of whether the policies and procedures were complied with because the record was not clear.  

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