Student Who Withdrew Due To Bullying Entitled To Tuition Refund

Category: Private Education Matters
Date: May 29, 2020 05:22 PM

Craig Johnson was a student at Milford Academy, a private boarding school located in New York known for preparing student athletes for the academic demands of participating in postsecondary education.  Johnson was a member of the Academy’s football team.

Two weeks after beginning as a student at the Academy, 12-15 teammates broke into Johnson’s dorm room at night.  One of the players dumped a large bucket of water on Johnson’s bed and challenged Johnson to a fight in the gym.  Johnson and his teammate fought and after Johnson began bleeding from his head, he tried to end the fight.  However, his teammate pursued Johnson as he walked towards the dorm rooms and struck Johnson a few more times in the head.  There were no coaches present during the fight, but when a coach saw Johnson the next morning, he arranged for Johnson to go to the hospital where Johnson received 18 stitches on his face.  The coach told the team that everyone would be “kicked out” of the Academy if there were any more fights.

About two weeks later, after the team had to run on the hill as punishment for missing a morning workout, one of Johnson’s teammates ran down the hill at full speed, tackled Johnson to the ground, and punched Johnson until another teammate pulled the player off him.  When the coaches saw what was occurring, they told the players to stop fighting.  The fight caused swelling on the right side of Johnson’s face.  Shortly thereafter, Johnson was involved in a third incident.  After Johnson was unable to do a favor for his roommate, his roommate angrily body slammed Johnson to the floor.  Another teammate broke up the fight a few minutes later. 

After the third incident, the Academy moved Johnson to a dorm room on a different floor apart from his teammates.  However, after spending one night in the new dorm room, Johnson did not feel that the move would make any difference in his safety.

Johnson’s mother spoke with the Academy and asked for a guarantee that Johnson would be in no more fights.  When the Academy did not make that guarantee, Johnson withdrew after being enrolled for only about six weeks.  Johnson’s mother requested a tuition refund from the Academy, but the Academy denied her request.  The enrollment agreement that Johnson’s mother signed stated that she was not entitled to a refund in the case of withdrawal.

Johnson’s mother then filed a claim in small claims court for $5,000 based on breach of contract.  While the full tuition amount for the school year was $20,000, the maximum amount one can recover in small claims court in New York is $5,000.  Johnson’s mother alleged that she was entitled to a tuition refund because Johnson endured three bullying incidents while at the Academy, the Academy failed to provide proper supervision, Johnson was seriously injured, Johnson withdrew because he did not feel safe, and the Academy failed to assure that it could protect Johnson in the future.

At trial, Johnson testified concerning the three incidents and explained that dumping buckets of water on students’ beds, shooting bb guns, and fighting, including boxing and wrestling, were common at the Academy.  Johnson refused to refer to the incidents as bullying, and instead stated that he was “chosen” and “targeted.” 

The witnesses for the Academy did not contradict Johnson’s testimony and, in fact, verified that the incidents involving Johnson and the types of incidents Johnson described, including fighting, horseplay, and shooting bb guns, were occurring, but that no one was in danger at any time.  The coaches testified that there was a “boys will be boys” culture at the Academy and that problems between students typically arose when the coaches were sleeping. 

Two of the coaches also testified that students were disciplined for the incidents with Johnson and the other types of incidents that Johnson described, while one of the coaches was unaware of whether discipline was imposed.  They noted that the punishments for breaking the rules varied depending on the severity of the violation, from taking privileges away to being removed from the Academy.  However, the Academy did not produce a student code of conduct or disciplinary policy at trial.  The coaches generally asserted that the Academy does everything in its power to keep all of the students in the program and that one of the coaches acted as a mentor to Johnson, who they asserted contributed to the altercations, and tried to keep him from having conflict with other players.

The coaches also testified that the Academy’s no refund policy is important because the program budgets for a certain number of players each year, they cannot replace a player who leaves the program mid-year, and refunds would undermine the Academy’s annual budget. 

The court explained that in every contract for the performance of services, the parties are obligated to perform in an objectively reasonable manner under the circumstances.  The court further explained that in every contract, there is an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing and that in the educational setting, this requires an academic institution to act in good faith in its dealings with its students.

Applying this to the facts of the case, the court held that the Academy breached its implied covenant to act in good faith towards Johnson.  The Academy lacked a written student code of conduct, lacked a written disciplinary protocol, failed to supervise the students appropriately, and failed to provide an environment where Johnson felt safe.  The court explained that the Academy’s breach gave Johnson’s mother a legitimate and reasonable reason to withdraw her son from the Academy.  Accordingly, the court held that Johnson’s mother was entitled to the $5,000 partial tuition refund.

Johnson v. Milford Academy (N.Y. City Ct. 2018) 67 Misc.3d 1206(A).

Note:

While this case was decided out of a small claims court in New York and is not binding in California, its subject is relevant because all schools owe a duty of care to protect their students from foreseeable harm.  Schools must maintain suitable and appropriate policies and protocols governing student conduct and discipline, must enforce those policies and protocols consistently and fairly, and must take steps to protect their students from foreseeable harm while on campus and while participating in school related-activities off campus.

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