Smith v. Leake County School District – Failure to Protect Against Bullying
Gregg Hollander | August 7, 2016 | Personal Injury
We trust that when we send our child to school, the teachers, administrators, coaches and other staff are going to do all they can to ensure the safety of our youth. In fact, they have a legal duty to do so.
When that does not happen, it may be possible to hold the school district liable for damages.
Such was the case in Smith v. Leake County School District, a matter recently before the Mississippi Supreme Court. While the lower courts had granted the school district governmental immunity after finding the protection of a bullied student was a discretionary function, the state high court reversed, finding it is actually a ministerial one.
Governmental immunity is often a defense that will be raised by government agencies – including school districts. However, governmental immunity is not absolute. When functions are ministerial – that is it conforms to applicable statutes, ordinances or regulations – the immunity is generally waived. However, if the function was discretionary – that is, requires some judgement or deliberation to approve or disprove of a particular action – the agency may be protected.
This is a conclusion that is likely to be considered by other state high courts weighing similar disputes on child injuries.
According to court records, victim was a special education student in the sixth grade at a local junior high school. She was the target of incessant bullying for a full year by a group of five other girls. It became a pattern that victim’s mother complained about repeatedly to administrators.
In one of those instances, a girl pulled her hair. This resulted in the aggressor being suspended for five days from riding the bus. However after that time, the girl returned to the same bus with the victim a few days later when the principal could find no other appropriate transportation to take her home. Although the principal placed the aggressor at the front of the bus, the victim was nonetheless attacked by the original aggressor and the four other girls while the bus was en route.
The other girls broke the victim’s wrist and punctured her scalp and beat her with a belt buckle until she lost consciousness. The victim was hospitalized. The original aggressor was expelled.
Victim’s mother sued the school district. She alleged the district failed to properly supervise the students, failed to properly discipline students, failed to hold students to strict account for disorderly conduct on school grounds, failed to properly monitor students, failed to use ordinary care and failed to create a safe environment for students.
The district filed a motion to dismiss and a motion for summary judgment, arguing it was protected by governmental immunity.
The lower court ruled that the school’s conduct handbook and anti-bullying policy made the district’s response discretionary.
The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed. The court’s reasoning was that although the state constitution is silent as to the school’s duty to provide a safe environment for students and prevent bullying, there were at least three state statutes that touched on this issue.
The court concluded that based on previous precedent, the state code established a ministerial duty to provide a safe school environment, which meant the school could be held liable.
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Smith v. Leake County School District, July 28, 2016, Mississippi Supreme Court
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Cramer v. Hon. Starr – Original Tortfeasor Rule Tested, July 28, 2016, Boca Raton School Injury Attorney Blog