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School District Owed Duty To Protect Student From Sexual Abuse By Teacher Despite Lacking Actual Knowledge Of Abuse Or Teacher’s Propensity To Abuse
When Jane Doe was a 13-year-old, seventh-grade student at a school within the Lawndale Elementary School District (District), she participated in the School’s band program during regular school hours. School employee, Jason Farr, oversaw an afterschool and summer program at the school, called Realizing Amazing Potential (RAP), which gave students the opportunity to practice music in the band room and do homework in the school’s classrooms.
After Farr met Doe, he convinced her to join the afterschool RAP and then the summer RAP. Thereafter, Farr began grooming Doe through a process that included sending messages on social media, telling her he had feelings for her, talking to her on the phone, sitting in on her classes to be near her, and spending time with her on campus, including time alone with her in the band room where he engaged in physical and sexual contact with her through the spring of her eighth-grade year. After Doe’s stepfather learned of the abuse, Farr was arrested for certain charges related to his sexual abuse of Doe and pleaded guilty to at least one charge.
Doe filed an action against the District for negligent supervision of students, negligent hiring, supervision, and retention of Farr, and breach of its duty to report suspected child abuse under the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA) arising from Farr’s sexual abuse. CANRA requires a “mandated reporter,” which includes teachers and certain other school employees, to make a report to a law enforcement agency or a county welfare department whenever the mandated reporter, in his or her professional capacity or within the scope of his or her employment, has knowledge of or observes a child whom the mandated reporter knows or reasonably suspects has been the victim of child abuse or neglect.
The District moved for a judgment in its favor without a trial on the merits. The District argued that it had no duty or ability to protect Doe from sexual abuse by Farr because it had no actual knowledge of Farr’s abuse of Doe nor any knowledge of prior misconduct by Farr. The District further argued that it did not violate its reporting obligations under CANRA because no District employee knew or reasonably suspected that Farr had sexually abused Doe.
Doe countered that the District’s duty was not triggered only upon actual knowledge of a sexual relationship because school districts have a special relationship with their students and an ongoing duty to protect their students from foreseeable harm, including sexual abuse. Doe further asserted that District employees should have formed a suspicion of child abuse and reported such suspicions under CANRA. Doe submitted evidence from several classmates who described incidents of unusual or inappropriate behavior between Farr and Doe they witnessed on campus, such as flirting with each other, Farr hugging and tickling Doe, Doe wearing Farr’s jacket, Doe and Farr being alone in the band room, and other “girlfriend/boyfriend-type” behavior.
The trial court granted the District’s motion, agreeing that District had no duty to protect Doe from sexual abuse unless it had actual knowledge that Farr previously engaged in, or had a propensity to engage in, sexual misconduct with minors, the District did not have such actual knowledge, and the conduct the District did know about was too “ambiguous” to give rise to a duty of care. Doe appealed.
On appeal, the court explained that the District’s administrators had a duty to use reasonable measures to protect Doe from sexual abuse even without any actual knowledge of any prior abuse or propensity for abuse, and the trial court and the District were mistaken when they placed such a limitation on that duty. The court then noted that there were factual issues remaining as to whether the District took reasonable measures to protect Doe from abuse, and that was an issue for a jury to decide.
With regard to Doe’s CANRA allegations, the court noted that CANRA’s objective standard for evaluating the reasonableness of a mandated reporter’s suspicion depends on facts actually known, and there was no evidence that any school district employee knew facts from which a reasonable person in a like position would have suspected that Farr had sexually abused Doe. Therefore, the District could not be liable to Doe for breach of the duty to report suspected abuse under CANRA, even if other students witnessed Farr’s unusual and inappropriate conduct towards Doe.
The court permitted Doe’s negligence claims to proceed and found in favor of the District on Doe’s CANRA cause of action.
Doe v. Lawndale Elementary School District (2021) 72 Cal.App.5th 113.
While this case arose at a public school, private colleges, universities, and K-12 schools also have a duty to take reasonable measures to protect students from foreseeable harm. For K-12 schools, reasonable steps may include things such as employee/student boundaries policies that prohibit employees from communicating with students through methods other than school-sponsored email addresses or school-sponsored electronic messaging, prohibit employees from being alone with students in closed classrooms, and prohibit employees from hugging or having other physical contact with students. Any policies that schools implement must be followed consistently.