Bullying on the Bus: Bellevue School Discrimination Case

On August 29, 2016, the Washington State Court of Appeals (Division I) issued a published decision involving claims against the Bellevue School District regarding the bullying and retaliation the school bus. The case itself involves some legal technicalities, specifically around jury instructions. Specifically the question was essentially whether the trial court erred in using the statutory definition in the harassment, bullying, and intimidation statutory statute in a jury instruction and whether that created an improper higher standard for the family to meet in their negligence suit.

Case

Allen & Jennifer Quynn, Appellants v. Bellevue School District, Respondent; Docket No. 73825-9; Opinion Author – Dwyer; joined by Becker and Trickey; Attorney for Appellants – Katherine George; Attorney for Respondents James Baker and Kenneth Masters. 

Basic Facts

Parents sued the Bellevue School District, claiming that the district had been negligent in failing to protect their daughter (while the child is referenced by her name in appeal, to increase her privacy, she will be referred to as “Daughter”) from harassment, intimidation, and bullying that she suffered while riding the school bus during her eighth grade year of middle school. A group of boys where allegedly targeting female students and Daughter reported an especially serious incident. She then became the focus of the boys’ aggression. There was name calling, groping, and having items thrown at her that resulted in welts.

She did not report the harassment, intimidation, and bullying that occurred against her after her report. The claim in the case is that the District knew or should have known that bullying was a likely result from the reporting and the school should have done more to ensure Daughter’s safety.

The Family challenged the decision with regard to a jury instruction regarding the duty of the school district and the definition of harassment, intimidation and bullying. They challenged based on (1) The district owed the child the highest duty of care, one applicable to common carriers, (2) inclusion of the definition of harassment, intimidation, and bullying unfairly limited the reach of their negligence claim, and (3) the instruction improperly articulated the duty and responsibility owed to Daughter by the district.

Appellate Court Opinion

The Court of Appeals agreed that school districts have a special relationship with students that gives rise to a duty of care to prevent a third party from causing physical injury to another.  This case cites McLeod v. Grant County School District No. 128, 42 Wn.2d 316, 255 P.2d 360 (1953), which held that because a child is compelled to attend school and has an involuntary relationship with the school district, the district has a duty “to anticipate dangers which may reasonably be anticipated, and to then take precautions to protect pupils in its custody from such dangers.”

In this case, the  Court of Appeals disagreed with the family that School Districts are required to provide the highest level of care on school buses. Instead the court held that the standard of care on a school bus, regarding the behavior of children, versus how a bus is driven, is the same as it would be anywhere else at school – reasonable care, “as it supervises the pupils within its custody, the district is required to exercise such care as a reasonably prudent person would exercise under the same or similar circumstances…The basic idea is that a school district has the power to control the conduct of its students while they are in school or engaged in school activities and with that power goes the responsibility of reasonable supervision.”

The Court of Appeals distinguished the heightened duty of a common carrier, which they linked to activities related to driving a bus from a lower level of duty, which they believed was more appropriate for behaviors of students on the bus. Basically the heightened duty of car is for driving functions, including making sure you use the stop sign so children can cross safely; reasonable care must be used with regard to the behavior of the children.

The next question involved a jury instruction that used the statutory language of the state harassment, intimidation and bullying law (“HIB Law”). In discussing the use of the statutory language in the instruction regarding negligence, the Court of Appeals noted that the HIB Law does not create a private right of action (meaning the HIB Law doesn’t allow parents to sue, so it’s not appropriate to use that definition when the suit doesn’t arise out of that law). The Court of Appeals found that by imposing the administrative definition of “harassment, intimidation, and bullying” the trial court improperly restricted the scope of the tort claim, which had the impact of requiring enhanced elements of proof in order to prevail.

Translation: the suit was regarding the school’s negligence. Instead of focusing on the question of whether the school was negligent, the jury was instructed to look at the HIB Law definition and determine whether the behavior of the bullying students reached a a level of physical harm, “substantially interfering with a student’s education” or “substantially disrupting the orderly operation of the school.”

The law around negligence not require physical harm. The court stated, “Indeed, to suggest that a bullied student cannot recover for emotional or psychological harm in the absence of actual physical injury runs completely counter to the analysis in McLeod.”

On top of the fact that physical harm is not required, proving that behavior had a “substantial” impact on a student or the school is a much higher burden than proving a school was negligent. The depth of the harm in a tort/negligence action is typically dealt with in determining the amount of damages (if any) and not whether the school was actually negligent.

The Court of Appeals said the error in this case required a new trial. As is all to often the case in cases involving schools, the litigation goes on longer than children are even in school. The incidents in this case occurred around December 2010. Now, in September 2016, the case is being sent down for another trial (that’s if the school district doesn’t appeal this ruling, if this ruling gets appealed and goes to the State Supreme Court and is heard and affirmed by the Washington State Supreme Court, resolution through a litigation process is likely still years off. The child was in the 8th grade when this incident occurred. Hopefully she’s in college now.

 

Washington State Supreme Court Case Re: School Negligence

The Washington State Supreme Court just issued a decision regarding school liability in a case where a 14 year female junior high student was raped by an 18 year male high school student who was also a registered sex offender. Approximately two years before, the male student, in the same school district, sexually assaulted a different junior high student. He was charged with indecent liberties and suspended for the rest of the school year. He was required to register as a level one sex offender and was not allowed contact with people two or more years younger than himself.

It is unclear to me whether the same principal was at the school when the original incident happened, but the principal at the time of second incident was notified by the Pierce County sheriff that the male student was registered sex offender. The record indicates that the principal did not inform the male student’s teachers, coaches, or relevant staff of the male student’s sex offender status. The evidence suggested that the principal did nothing to establish a safety plan and to help the male student avoid students two or more years younger than him.

The male student was allowed to participate in track and ran varsity for the Bethel High School varsity team. The high school and the junior high shared the track field. The male student was described as acting like a coach and mentor to the younger students on both schools’ teams. During practice a mutual friend introduced the targeted student and the aggressor. The very next day he invited her to lunch after school and she skipped track practice with the intention of going to Burger King for lunch, instead the male student took her to his home, under the pretense he had forgotten something, and then he raped the female student.

The female student told a friend and the friend told the school and the girl’s parent. The police were called and the male student was charged with third degree rape and plead guilty to second degree assault.

The trial court dismissed the case on summary judgment and the Supreme Court was addressing the questions: (1) Whether the school district’s responsibility to protect the student ended, and therefore its liability ended, when she left campus? And (2) Whether the alleged negligence, as a matter of law, could be the proximate cause of her injury?

A side note about proximate cause

Since the concept of “proximate cause” is central to the court’s analysis I want to elaborate on the issue for clarity for nonlawyers (the majority also did provided a quality description). This is a legal concept that involves two concepts – cause in fact, and legal cause. Cause in fact means that “but for” the A, B would not have happened. Legal cause is a policy determination about how far the consequences of a defendant’s acts should extend. There can be more than one proximate cause of an injury, and something else by a third party does not necessarily break the causal chain from the original negligence to final injury.

A couple of overly simplistic examples:

Proximate cause does not exist: D is texting and inadvertently lets her foot of the gas and rear ends E at a stop sign. D has a hummer and E has smart car, so there’s some damage, but everyone seems fine. A couple days later, E decides to go to E’s doctor because E has a sore neck that doesn’t seem to be going away. While coming back from the doctor, E is robbed. There is no proximate cause for D for the loss of money E sustained in the robbery because it is not a foreseeable consequence that someone could get robbed on the way back from a medical appointment.

Proximate cause exists: A shoots B and B gets in a car and drive to the hospital, and en route to the hospital gets hit by C and is B delayed in getting to the hospital by 25 minutes. A is still responsible for any injuries related to the gunshot, even if the delay possibly exacerbated the injury, because it is reasonably foreseeable that if you shoot someone, they may have a hard time getting to help. Proximate Cause Stops Existing: B gets fixed at the hospital and two weeks later is at a routine follow-up appointment and slips and falls at the doctor’s office. B breaks their arm in the fall. While on some level it is foreseeable that B would have follow-up care and that some people have accidents, as a policy the slip and fall is disconnected enough from the initial gun shot that as a legal matter we are likely to say that the A is not liable for injury related to slip and fall, even though, but for the initial gun shot, B would likely not have been at the doctor’s office.

Back to the School Discrimination Case

The issues in the school negligence case before the Washington State Supreme Court was about whether or not the fact that the incident occurred in the male students home was enough of another factor as to interrupt the school’s potential liability. In the dissent’s view, the school’s responsibility ended because a school cannot control the behavior of students in their homes. Fortunately that was the dissent and their view, that as a matter of law the school cannot be liable for its negligent acts if the injury occurs of school grounds or not at school activities. Instead the majority held that it was reasonably foreseeable and the school district may be liable for a foreseeable injury that is likely a proximate cause for the injury.

This decision doesn’t mean that a jury will find the school district was negligent. The school district will still have an opportunity to try to demonstrate that it was not essentially their fault that the 14 year old student was raped by an 18 year old student. Although, given that the then Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) said that “the haphazard nature of Bethel’s approach to keeping its students safe from registered sex predators frankly boggles the imagination” and that the district “fell unconscionably below the accepted standard of care ‘to protect students from dangers that are known or should have been known,'” I don’t think the school district’s chance of success is very high.

This decision does say that a school district’s liability does not end at the schoolhouse doors (to adopt an expression about student rights). I expect that it will be a high threshold for school district liability, but a situation like this, where a school district has two types of knowledge, their own disciplinary history of the aggressor student and the report by the Sheriff’s office of the aggressor student’s sex offender registry status and the requirement not to be around students who were two years younger and that the day after he met this student at track practice he raped her make this a particularly compelling case. Even with the compelling facts, it was a narrow (5:4) decision.

Additional Case Details: 

N.L. v. Bethel Sch. Dist., Docket No. 91775-2, Counsel for Petitioner: Francis Stanley Floyd and John Armen Safarli at Floyd Pflueger & Ringer PS; Counsel for Respondent: Julie Anne Kays and Robert Connelly Jr at Connelly Law Offices.

Amicus briefs were filed by Gerald Moberg for Jerry Morberg & Associates on behalf of the Washington State School Directors Association, Association of Washington School Principals, and Washington Association of School Administrators. 

Amicus brief on Behalf of the Washington State Association for Justice Foundation was filed by Bryan Harnetiaux, Valerie Davis Mcomie, and Daniel Edward Huntingon (the court Supreme Court Information Sheet references a brief, but the brief was not found on Court website with the links to the briefs in the case).

Briefs in the case can be found on the Washington State Courts website under Supreme Court Petitions for Review

Turning the Bainbridge Island Alleged Teacher Abuse into a Learning Moment

The Bainbridge Island Police Department has arrested 26-year-old teacher Jessica Fuchs for illegal sexual conduct with a 16-year-old sophomore (based on the charges, the student was likely 16 when all incidents occurred). I blogged about this case here. Inside Bainbridge has several articles regarding the case and the arrest. Bainbridge Islander also has articles as does the Kitsap Sun.

According to Inside Bainbridge she was charged with Sexual Misconduct with a Minor in the 1st Degree, a class C felony (RCW 9A.44.093, makes it a crime for a teacher to have sex with a student who is at least 16 years old, when the teacher is at least 60 months older than the student, a Class C felony is a maximum of 5 years in prison); Communication with a Minor for Immoral Purposes, a gross misdemeanor (maximum of 364 days), and Tampering with a Witness, also a Class C felony.  If the student had been 15 when some of the incidents occurred other criminal laws would have also applied regarding rape of child or molestation of a child.

» Read more

Parent Guide as Bainbridge Island School District Deals with Teacher’s Inappropriate Conduct

On February 26, 2015, the Bainbridge Island School District sent out an email to the parents and community of Bainbridge Island School District to alert us of allegations of improper conduct of a Bainbridge Island High School teacher towards a student.

February 25, 2015
Dear Bainbridge High School Families,
Late afternoon Tuesday, Feb. 24, Bainbridge High School administrators learned of allegations of inappropriate conduct between a BHS teacher and student. Because the safety and well-being of our students is our top priority, we want to inform you of the steps we are taking at this time.
This morning, BHS administrators reported the allegations to law enforcement. While we are not authorized to provide specifics identifying either the student or the teacher, we can assure you that school and district administrators will fully cooperate with authorities on any investigation. We will also retain an independent investigator. The teacher is now on administrative leave pending the completion of the investigation.
The Bainbridge Island School District is taking the allegations very seriously. Because the incident involves members of our school community, any investigation may draw attention to our school. Situations of this nature can be upsetting to students and staff who hear about this at school, from friends or media. In the weeks ahead, our staff will pay additional attention to students for any signs of distress. Counselors will also be available to speak with students and listen to their feelings and their concerns.
We are committed to fully understanding the situation and working with authorities and the community until this matter is resolved. Thank you for your support and understanding.
Sincerely,
Mary Alice O’Neill
Principal

 

The email limits the information that it provides. From a legal standpoint limiting information provided is appropriate because the school district and the police must investigate the facts of the case. Limiting comment reduces the rumors and innuendo that are most assuredly going to follow. Rumor and innuendo are not inherently bad for a community as they are a method of community investigation, but they are not reliable for trying to figure out the facts surrounding an incident.

The vacuum of information leaves parents and community members searching for answers. This blog post is designed to provide a little understanding about what the process may look like.

First, the email is unclear as to what the conduct it, it simply says “inappropriate conduct.” That could be a wide variety of things, they could have been gambling, or the teacher could have slapped the student, but “inappropriate conduct” is usually code for sexual conduct. There is also a long history in education of teachers, especially coaches, behaving in sexually inappropriate ways towards students (see my November 14, 2014 blog post which links to the Seattle Times story). There is also a long history of media romanticizing student-teacher sexual relationships, one somewhat recent example was the Pretty Little Liars plot line of the student-teacher affair.

Second, it was referred to the police, which means the activity was criminal, lending support to the theory that it was sexual conduct.

The point of this blog post is to provide a information on the responsibilities of the school and the police, and to provide information for students and parents parents regarding their rights and ways to advocate for themselves when something like this happens to one of our children.

School District Responsibilities

When something happens in a school setting, whether in school, on a field trip, or by an employee of the school district, the school district is has a responsibility to take actions to protect students, and when, despite their efforts to protect students, something happens anyway, they have a responsibility to immediately get the student(s) safe, then to investigate, and then to make whatever structural changes necessary to reduce the possibility of a similar incident occurring in the future.

The school also need to make sure they monitor the atmosphere after-the-fact. It is common for the perpetrators of sexual assaults to be charismatic. It is likely that the teacher is well-liked. There is a possibility there could be back lash against the targeted student and a school has a duty to protect against this possibility.

While the school district has involved the police, they are not allowed to wait for the police to investigate before performing their own investigation. The email noted that the school district would be performing its own independent investigation.

Meanwhile, the school must take immediate action to increase the safety of the targeted student and all students. In this instance, the school has immediately put the teacher on administrative leave and that is and important first step, regardless of the outcome of the investigation. They have also noted that they are going to paying particular attention to the school climate and will have counselors available to talk to students.

If the incident that occurred is of a sexual nature then there are state and federal responsibilities that apply. The federal law is Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in schools, including sexual harassment and sexual assault. The state law is our state Sex Equality law. If it it isn’t a sexual incident but it is related to certain protected classes, there are also federal and state laws which create heightened responsibilities for the school, the state protections are broader and cover race, creed, color, national origin, honorably discharged veteran or military status, sexual orientation, the presence of any sensory, mental, or physical disability, or the use of a trained dog guide or service animal by a person with a disability.

When an issue occurs that involves what is often referred to as “protected classes” a school must go beyond the specific incident and look at its climate, its policies, its procedures and determine if there is anything they can do to decrease the possibility of something happening in the future. If the school realizes that there is a culture or climate that contributed to the incident occurring they must take remedial action and work to improve the climate beyond simply disciplining the perpetrator of this particular incident. Essentially, a school district must turn it into a learning moment.

One important change BI should make is around the lack of transparency for the BI school district policy on sexual harassment and discrimination. While you can find their harassment, intimidation and bullying policy here, I have never been able to find their policies and procedures that are connected to protections against discrimination based on the protected classes. While the additional protected classes are relatively new (law passed in 2010), the Sex Equity law and associated responsibilities to have sexual harassment policies have been around since 1975 on the state level and since 1972 on the federal level. The state administrative regulations that provide school districts with some guidance are available here. These administrative regulations were recently get revised (in December 2014), but those changes relate more to when the matter gets appealed to the Office of the Superintendent), but the initial WACs came out in 1976. When the additional protected classes were added in 2010, OSPI simply tacked those unique issues onto the Sex Equity WACs, which means that schools have had plenty of time to have policies and procedures.

In addition to the WACs, OSPI issued Guidelines in February 2012. The WACs and Policies make it clear that each school district is supposed to have policies on sexual harassment and that these policies are supposed to be conspicuously posted throughout each school building, and provided to each employee, volunteer, and student and that a copy of the policy must appear in any publication of the school or school district setting forth rules, regulations, procedures, and standards of conduct for the school or school district.

Police Responsibilities

The police will have to perform an investigation. Their responsibility is limited to the specific criminal acts that may have occurred. They must determine whether there is probable cause for an arrest and the Prosecutor’s office will make a determination as to whether there is enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that conduct violated a law. If they make this determination, then they will charge the perpetrator and the case will either settle or go trial.

Again, based on the presumption that this involves sexual conduct, the statutes that govern are under RCW 9A.44. The way our criminal law works is that there are degrees of a crime and they are classified as different levels of felony or misdemeanor and they are a different level of felony, so first degree is a felony A, which then means there is a higher sentencing range. There are also misdemeanors which carry a lower penalty the felonies.

Rape of a child and child molestation in the first degree require that the child is under 12, second degree is when the child is between the ages of 12 and 14, and third degree is when the child is between 14 and 16.

Since the student is in high school, there’s a good chance he or she is over 16. In that case, the law that the teacher may have violated would be the sexual misconduct with a minor. It’s a crime in the first degree for a school employee to have sexual intercourse with an enrolled student of the school who is at least sixteen years old and not more than 21 years old, if the employee is at least 60 months (5 years) older than the student. This is a Class C felony. If it is sexual contact as opposed to intercourse it is a second degree offense and a gross misdemeanor.

There are a variety of other laws that could apply, but those are the ones that would most likely apply.

 

Responsibilities of the Parents and the Young Adult/Child

Whenever a person has been a target of sexual violence, it is important that he or she and, when the person is a minor, their parents, advocate on their behalf. The process can be confusing and scary. Police, prosecutors, and the school do not represent the targeted students, even though there is overlap in concern. Parents and students need to get informed about the process, both with the school district and with the police.

One place that parents and students can turn is the Sexual Violence Law Center. This is a great resource to learn about what additional protections might exist for the targeted student, from protection orders, to understanding the confidentiality of records, to understanding rape shield laws (designed to prevent blaming the targeted student because of clothing choices or prior sexual relationships), this website is a great resource and a great resource of resources, including their Know Your Rights Guide (available in English, Spanish and Chinese)

Also, it is incredibly important to communicate in writing. Even if you have a call or in person meeting, follow up that call or meeting with an email confirming what you understood the content of the call or meeting and the next steps. This is important for you, because it will make sure you are clear on the process, but it is also important because written documentation is more likely to produce results partially because it creates a heightened fear of future liability. Hopefully the school district will take all the proper steps, but if they don’t and you follow-up with OSPI or file a civil suit, written documentation will be able to be evidence. Telling someone what someone else said is not typically admissible evidence because it’s hearsay. In addition, Washington State law provides that a “personal representative of the victim’s choice” may accompany him or her to the hospital and to proceedings concerning the alleged assault, including police and prosecution interviews and court proceedings.

As a quick overview, the way the school hierarchy works is (1) responsible employee within the school, (2) school board, (3) OSPI. A report needs to be made to a responsible employee. Who the “responsible employees” are can be unclear, it is not necessarily just a teacher or even a counselor, but unquestionably, the compliance coordinator and Title IX officer are responsible employees. OSPI has a list on their website. For the Bainbridge Island School District, the compliance coordinator and Title IX Coordinators is Peter Bang-Knudsen, 206-780-1072, pbangknudsen@bisd303.org. OSPI’s website also provides a general overview about a complaint process here.

The general overview is that a parent/student can try to deal with the complaint through the school district. Since Bainbridge Island doesn’t have that information posted, it is hard to know what their procedure is, but they are supposed to have an internal appeal process. Once that decision is made, a student can appeal to OSPI. If it gets to OSPI, OSPI will perform its own investigation and issues its own findings. Please note there are some tight deadlines for appealing, 20 days within your final complaint to OSPI. 

An alternative administrative process is filing a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights U.S. Department of Education (OCR). OCR will pursue issues connected to race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and age. Their process for filing a complaint can be found here (and it is available in multiple languages).  Again, there are timelines, typically 180 days (about six months) from the discriminatory incident.

When the Department of Education gets involved they do an investigation and the investigation will typically result in a Resolution Agreement. An example of a resolution agreement can be found here (follow the link under the paragraph to see the resolution letter). The Resolution Agreement involves actions the school needs to take to resolve the structural deficiencies that created a culture and climate that allowed discrimination to occur.

When parents/students pursue resolution through the school, OSPI or the Department of Education, they are pursuing what are called administrative remedies. There is also a private right to sue encompassed in Title IX and the sex equity law, the lawsuits include a right to monetary damages if the school acted with deliberate indifference. A suit can also be filed for negligence on the school district’s part, which is an easier claim to establish than the “deliberate indifference” standard. Civil claims (a lawsuit) can also be made against the perpetrator.

*Note on language: You may have noticed that instead of “victim” or “survivor” I used “targeted student.” I use this language for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to the reality that many people who have been the target of sexual violence do not like the word “victim” or even “survivor.” But perhaps more importantly, using the word “targeted student” more accurately conveys what happens. Many perpetrators are repeat offenders, they actively target/groom the person they want to attack, they do it consciously and one targeted student could easily be replaced by another. It also places the responsibility of the violence on the person committing the violence and not the person who is targeted by the violence. 

Rape Kit Testing – Digging through the backlog

Since at least 2009, we have been aware that police departments routinely do not process rape kits. In 2009, it was  a report noting that Los Angeles County had the largest known rape kit backlog of 12,669 untested rape kits. 

End the Backlog focuses on shining a light on the rape kit backlog. They note that the federal government estimated that hundreds of thousands of rape kits sit untested in police and crime storage facilities.

Of late, the backlog is getting more attention. Law & Order SVU even had an episode that addressed the backlog issue on September 29, 2014. The latest news is a January 4, 2015 report from the BBC, New Hope for Rape Kit Testing Advocates. This report demonstrates what is common knowledge to people who work with sexual assault, many rapists are repeat offenders. Here are some of the facts from the BBC article:

  • Detroit: More than 750 DNA matches were found in CODIS from about 2,000 rape kits.
  • Detroit: 188 serial rapists were identified from the processed kits – they’ve committed crimes in 27 other states.
  • Detroit: Indictments – 14 dismissed by court or prosecutor; 16 guilt by jury; 1 hung jury; 7 not guilty, 44 guilty plea accepted. 60 out of 91 resulted in a conviction or a guilty plea. 
  • Cleveland: After processing 4,300 kits, police have opened more than 231 people have been indited, a third of whom had at least one previous rape conviction.  Most of the remaining cases are still being investigated.
  • Colorado – out of 150 kits tested, they had 24 matches in CODIS.

If you are the victim of a sexual assault, you have to advocate for yourself. Quite frankly, we know from the massive backlog, from the experience of disbelief of those in authority and even friends and family, that we exist in a world were rape victims are not believed, or worse they are believed but pressured to be quiet because of the status of the perpetrator. The awareness of the rape testing backlog and the results from testing create an opportunity for a sea change in attitudes. The results from Detroit alone show that rape case, when proper investigation is done, can result in convictions or guilty pleas.

One great way to become your own best advocate is to empower yourself. Understand the issues. Check out End The Backlog’s resources for survivors. Check out the resources in Washington State. One great resource is Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs. If you need to hire a private attorney to represent you either through the process or with your own case, JELS may be able to help, whether through representation or assistance in finding an attorney who can represent you.