Court ruling holds districts to safety obligations

Court ruling holds districts to safety obligations

(Calif.) A recent appellate court ruling adds new liability issues for districts over the adequacy of school safety plans addressing student-on-student bullying.

In the case of Hector F. v. El Centro Elementary School District, judges ruled that parents of a student could seek enforcement of a district's obligation to adhere to statutory anti-discrimination and harassment provisions of the government and education codes.

At issue were multiple claims from a parent that his child faced ongoing bullying because of a disability and the child’s ethnic background. The suit alleged that El Centro had not adopted nor implemented a comprehensive safety plan.

 “As a citizen and taxpayer, Hector has standing to seek enforcement of laws in which there is an identified public as well as private interest,” wrote presiding judge Patricia D. Benke in the  4th District Court of Appeal opinion.  “The statutory provisions asserted by Hector articulate a well identified public interest in maintaining a system of taxpayer funded public education which is free of the destructive influence of discrimination, harassment and bullying.”

Current law requires every school to develop a school safety plan that covers a range of components including discrimination and harassment policies, disaster and emergency procedures and other daily campus procedures.

According to the suit, the student was a non-native English speaker and had been diagnosed with emotional disabilities, including bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder and depression. The family alleged the boy had been forcibly restrained by other students on multiple occasions and beaten, kicked, threatened and taunted.

The trial court had dismissed parts of the complaint asserting claims on behalf of the parent because the student no longer attended a school in the district; Hector’s other children, who were still enrolled in district schools, weren’t experiencing bullying or harassment, and because it ruled that the statutes he was relying on didn’t provide a right to sue the district.

In reversing the decision, the appellate court cited section 201 of the Education Code which states in part that “Harassment on school grounds directed at an individual on the basis of personal characteristics or status creates a hostile environment and jeopardizes equal educational opportunity as guaranteed by the California Constitution and the United States’ Constitution.”

“California's public schools have an affirmative obligation to combat racism, sexism, and other forms of bias, and a responsibility to provide equal educational opportunity,” the code reads.

One in five high school students in the U.S. was bullied last year, according to a survey on student health and safety released by the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

In California, where over 11,000 suicide attempts by youth occur each year, recent, highly publicized teen suicide cases tell the stories of students who had been teased and bullied at school in the weeks leading up to their deaths.

Education law firm Lozano Smith suggests that school districts “review their board policies, administrative regulations and school site safety plans to ensure compliance with anti-discrimination, harassment and bullying laws,” and “consider staff training on compliance with applicable policies, regulations and laws.”

There is no indication that a Petition for Review to the California Supreme Court has been filed, and if no further action is taken before the end of the week the case will return to the trial court.