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School’s Arbitration Provisions In Enrollment Agreement And Handbook Moved Case Into Arbitration
Colin Happ, a student at Calvary Christian Academy, died by suicide following the School’s request that Colin withdraws for selling a vape pen to another student. Colin’s parents brought suit against the School, alleging claims of wrongful death and negligence, asserting that the School violated its own policies and procedures.
The parents argued that the School, “consistent with their policies and procedures,” owed a duty of care to assess the discipline imposed on students like Colin, to see if those students were in crisis, and to determine the specific care that was needed to address and minimize the risk of self-harm or suicide for those students. The parents also argued that the School was negligent for failing to conduct a full investigation and imposing a punishment on Colin that had no basis in the School’s policies and procedures. At least twenty of the allegations made by the parents referenced the School’s investigation of the incident and the appropriateness of the School’s disciplinary procedures.
The School moved to dismiss the complaint, or, alternatively, to compel arbitration pursuant to the School’s enrollment agreement, which the parents signed when Colin enrolled. The enrollment agreement had clear language that parents agreed to address any disagreement or legal claim against the School through “the process of conflict resolution, including Christian mediation and binding arbitration, as outlined in the Parent/Student Handbook.” The Parent/Student Handbook similarly stated that any claim or dispute “arising out of” a student’s enrollment at the School would be settled by “biblically-based mediation, and, if mediation is not successful, legally binding arbitration.” The parents and the School agreed to these terms when both parties signed the enrollment agreement.
The trial court found that the parents’ claims did not arise out of Colin’s enrollment at the School. The School appealed.
The Court of Appeal found that the handbook’s arbitration clause specified that arbitration was the sole remedy for any controversy or claim “arising out of” a student’s enrollment. The Court of Appeal found that the parents’ complaint referenced the School’s policies and procedures when discussing the School’s alleged failure to properly investigate the incident, take appropriate disciplinary measures, and evaluate the student to determine the appropriate post-disciplinary support treatment. The parents relied on the School’s enrollment agreement and handbook to establish the School’s duty to the student, and the School’s alleged breach of the agreement is what formed the parents’ wrongful death action. Therefore, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s order and determined that the dispute must be handled via arbitration.
Calvary Chapel Church, Inc. v. Happ (Fla. Dist. Ct. App., Jan. 4, 2023) 2023 WL 27926.
The case is a reminder that the language and provisions in a private school’s handbook, policies, and enrollment agreement may serve as the bases for claims made against the school. It is a best practice to periodically review and update these critical documents.