School District Has Duty To Protect Student From Sexual Abuse By A Teacher, Even Without Actual Knowledge Of Any Prior Abuse Or Propensity For Abuse

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Jan 25, 2022

Jane Doe was a seventh-grade student at one of Lawndale Elementary School District’s schools. She participated in the school’s band program during regular school hours and joined the afterschool program that also met on weekdays during the summer.

Farr was an instructor in the summer program. After Doe joined the program, Farr began to groom her for sexual abuse. He attended Doe’s band class even though he was not a teacher. They spent time alone and engaged in physical contact on the school campus. Farr continued to abuse Doe through at least the spring semester. Farr was eventually arrested and pled guilty to oral copulation of a person under the age of 16.

Jane Doe filed a lawsuit against the District, alleging that the District was negligent and breached its mandatory duty to report suspected child abuse under Penal Code section 11166, the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA). The District moved for summary judgment, arguing that it had no duty to protect Jane from abuse by Farr because it had no actual knowledge of the abuse, and Farr’s conduct was “ambiguous.” The District also argued that it did not breach its mandatory duty to report suspected child abuse because no District employee could have known or reasonably suspected that Farr abused Doe. Doe submitted evidence that several students observed Farr’s conduct towards Farr, and Doe and Farr’s conduct was obvious to most of the students in the program. The trial court granted the District’s summary judgment. Doe appealed.

The Court of Appeal first discussed the legal duty a school district owes to its students. A school district and its employees have a “special relationship” with its students that require them to use reasonable measures to protect students from foreseeable injuries caused by a teacher’s sexual abuse. Whether a defendant has a legal duty to take action to protect a plaintiff from injuries caused by a third party involves a two-step inquiry to determine whether a special relationship exists between the parties or if there is some other set of circumstances that give rise to an affirmative duty to protect. If so, the court must analyze a variety of factors, called the Rowland factors, to determine whether there are policy considerations that would limit this duty. The Court of Appeal held that the trial court failed to conduct this two-step inquiry when it ruled that the District did not have a duty to protect Doe from sexual abuse unless the District had actual knowledge Farr previously engaged in, or had the propensity to engage in, sexual misconduct with minors and that Farr’s conduct was too “ambiguous” to rise to a duty of care. While the District agreed it had a special duty to protect Doe, the Court of Appeal determined that the trial court limited the District’s duty of care.

The Court of Appeal held that the trial court’s ruling that the defendant only has a duty to protect a plaintiff if it has actual knowledge of a third-party’s propensity for sexual abuse when the defendant has a special relationship with the plaintiff is not supported in California law. The Court of Appeal analyzed each of the Rowland factors and held that they do not support limiting the District’s duty to protect its students from sexual abuse.

The first Rowland factor is foreseeability. The Court of Appeal rejected the District’s argument that Farr’s sexual abuse was not foreseeable. Rather, the issue is whether it is reasonably foreseeable that school administrators’ failure to take reasonable measures to prevent sexual abuse would injure students, not whether it was foreseeable that a particular teacher would commit sexual abuse. The Court of Appeal reasoned that sexual abuse by members of an organization that provides services exclusively to children, like the District, is reasonably foreseeable even when the organization has no knowledge that the member had previously abused anyone or had the propensity to do so.

The second factor is the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered an injury. The Court of Appeal held that this factor may be relevant when the plaintiff’s claim involves intangible harm, like emotional distress, and does not warrant limiting claims like Doe’s.

The third factor is the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered. The Court of Appeal reasoned that the District’s inaction is not distant or indirect to the injury suffered by Doe. In other words, a defendant school district that fails to reasonably supervise employees and students increases the likelihood that an employee will sexually abuse a student which will result in harm to the plaintiff.

The Court of Appeal then assessed the public policy factors under Rowland. The Court first discussed the moral blame factor. Here, the Court of Appeal stated that administrators who fail to notice, identify, and respond to warnings signs that an employee is sexually abusing or will sexually abuse a student bears moral responsibility for the abuse.

The next public policy factor is whether the policy of preventing future harm imposes a cost on those responsible for negligent conduct. The Court of Appeal reasoned that protecting children from sexual abuse weighs heavily in favor of imposing a duty on school districts to take reasonable measures to identify and respond to potential misconduct.

The next factor is the burden of imposing a duty on the defendant. Here, the Court of Appeal noted that the District already has policies in place to detect and prevent sexual abuse by teachers onto students, and trains staff to recognize signs of abuse. The Court of Appeal reasoned that imposing a duty on a defendant that already has policies and training in place to prevent sexual abuse is not burdensome.

The last public policy factor is the availability of insurance for the risk involved. The Court of Appeal determined this factor does not weigh for or against imposing a limited duty on the District because the District has not stated whether it has obtained insurance to cover sexual abuse claims.

Thus, the Rowland factors do not weigh in favor of limiting school administrators’ duty to prevent sexual abuse to circumstances where administrators have actual knowledge that a specific instructor previously engaged in sexual abuse and where misconduct is not “ambiguous.”

The Court of Appeal also agreed with the trial court’s finding that the District did not breach its mandatory duty to report suspected child abuse. Specifically, the Court of Appeal held that the District’s mandatory reporting duties are imposed when the District has a reasonable suspicion of abuse based on facts actually known to them, not what the District should have known. The reporting duties under Penal Code section 11166 use an objective reasonable standard. A plaintiff bringing a cause of action for breach of the mandatory duty under CANRA must prove it was objectively reasonable for a mandated reporter to suspect abuse based on the facts the reporter actually knew, not based on facts the reporter reasonably should have discovered. While Doe presented evidence that other students witnessed Farr’s conduct towards Doe, employees who supervised or worked with Farr denied seeing Farr physically interact with Doe on the school campus. Therefore, the District’s obligations under CANRA were not triggered because there was no evidence that a school district employee knew facts in which a reasonable person would suspect child abuse.

Doe v. Lawndale Elementary Sch. Dist. (2021) 72 Cal.App.5th 113.

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