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When child abuse is alleged to have taken place in a school, daycare facility, preschool program, summer camp, or other entity responsible for the supervision and safety of children, there is always the possibility that the entity may be liable if negligence can be established. Schools and other entities with a duty to protect children often become embroiled in lawsuits alleging that breach of this duty was a proximate cause of a child's injuries. Though laws vary, states adopt a broad definition of child abuse, including physical and emotional abuse, neglect and abandonment, incest, sexual molestation, and sexual exploitation. Typically, a child abuse report must be made to a designated state agency responsible for child protective services when a person, in his or her official capacity, suspects or has reason to believe that a child has been abused or neglected, or knows that a child has been subjected to conditions that could reasonably be expected to result in harm.

Mandatory Child Abuse Reporting

For example, if a parent takes a child to the emergency room after the child comes home from a day care center with an injury, the treating physician may make a child abuse report based on a reasonable suspicion that abuse occurred at the center. The child protective agency will conduct an investigation to determine whether the report can be substantiated. If it is substantiated, the parent may file a civil lawsuit against the daycare center for claims that might include negligent supervision of children; negligent hiring, training and supervision of staff; breach of professional standards of care; breach of the day care center's own standard; and any other claims that may have been a proximate cause of the injury.

All U.S. states and territories have laws identifying individuals who are required to report suspected child abuse. Social workers, doctors, teachers, school principals, and other professionals who frequently work with children are usually identified as mandated reporters. Mandates aside, any person with reasonable cause to believe that a child was abused can make a report - and a handful of states, such as New Jersey and Wyoming, requires anyone who knows of or suspects abuse to make a report. State laws anticipate that schools and other entities will have developed internal systems for processing child abuse reports and complying with state statutes. The law may also require the school or entity to provide its employees with written information explaining reporting requirements and to provide training in their execution.

Lack of Child Abuse Reporting Training and Procedures

During the course of an investigation into alleged child abuse, it is not uncommon to learn that staff at a daycare center or school had knowledge of, or had observed behavior indicative of, child abuse or neglect but failed report it to the appropriate agency. Failure to report often results from lack of training about mandatory child abuse reporting laws and detection of child abuse and neglect. This can leave a school or other entity involving children liable for a child's physical and emotional injuries. Thus, for the protection of children, it is extremely important that all employees are trained in the prevention, detection, and proper reporting of child abuse. Many schools and daycare centers bring in outside companies and professionals to provide training.

Schools often lose a civil lawsuit when a plaintiff's attorney can demonstrate that staff was not aware of their responsibility to report suspicion of child abuse. Consider this example: An elementary school librarian watched as a child with a disability who exhibited behavior problems was aggressively dragged out of the library by her special education teacher and forcefully slammed onto a chair in the hallway. Concerned, the librarian reported the teacher's behavior to the principal. "Oh that's happening again?" the principal responded. Neither the librarian nor the principal subsequently reported the incident to the proper authorities, even though the principal had prior reports of this teacher mistreating students. The teacher's behavior continued for several months until a parent went to the police and filed a complaint.

In this case, if the plaintiff's attorney can demonstrate that the teacher's behavior would lead a reasonable professional to report such behavior - yet the lack of such a report allowed the behavior to continue, ultimately resulting in harm to a child - then he or she will be in a strong position to settle in favor of the child. If, on the other hand, the defendant's attorney can demonstrate that the school had appropriate policies and procedures; adequately trained its staff in the prevention, detection, and reporting of child abuse; disciplined the teacher appropriately when an incident occurred; and took other measures to protect students, including the plaintiff, the school will have a better chance of defense.

At schools and other entities responsible for the supervision and safety of children, staff may learn of abuse in two ways. They may see abuse or have direct knowledge of it. Alternatively, they become aware of the possibility of abuse through rumors, innuendo, or secondhand reports. A pattern of poorly explained bruises and other injuries may raise reasonable suspicion of abuse on the basis of conversations with the child or his or her parents, family, or friends.

To protect children and to allay fears of legal reprisals, people who report child abuse are granted civil and criminal immunity. In some states, immunity is absolute, meaning there is no liability, even for maliciously and knowingly submitting a false report. In other states, immunity is granted only for reports made in good faith. Good faith will be presumed if the reporter acted in the discharge of his duties and within the scope of his employment, and if the report did not result from willful misconduct or gross negligence.

Even with the protection of immunity, administrators and teachers often hesitate to make child abuse reports. Failure to make a report is a misdemeanor that exposes the educator to the possibility of criminal prosecution. There is also the possibility of civil liability if harm done to a child might otherwise have been prevented by reporting prior behavior. It is, therefore, a legal imperative that teachers, counselors, and others responsible for the safety and welfare of children file a report whenever they have reasonable cause to suspect child abuse.

Carrying Out the Duty to Protect Students from Child Abuse

Schools and other agencies have a duty to protect children in their care from harm. This includes abuse inflicted or created by its own staff and by fellow students. Although laws vary from one state to another, definitions of abuse often are based on the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) of 1974. CAPTA identifies child abuse and neglect as "the physical or mental injury, sexual abuse or exploitation, negligent treatment, or maltreatment of a child ... by a person who is responsible for the child's welfare."

While acts by a staff member that result in student injury generally fit into the category of negligence, a teacher or an administrator as a state actor can generate a state-created danger. As opposed to negligence, state-created danger is generally applied under Section 1983 of Chapter 42 of the United States Code. School officials can be held responsible when they knew of impending danger, were recklessly indifferent to it, and thus knowingly created a dangerous environment that led to an otherwise preventable injury. Section 1983 has been used to seek monetary damages for violations of what courts refer to as bodily integrity, which is protected by the 14th Amendment, which prohibits "unjustified intrusions on personal security." Most such cases involve either sexual molestation or excessive corporal punishment.

At the state level, case law has established a school's responsibility for protecting students against the actions of other students, in addition to the actions of staff members. In Frugis v. Bracigliano (177 N.J. 250 [2003]), the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that "[a] board of education must take reasonable measures to assure that the teachers and administrators who stand as surrogate parents during the day are educating, not endangering, and protecting, not exploiting, vulnerable children." Four years later, the same court, in L.W. ex rel. L.G. v. Toms River Regional Schools Board of Education (189 N.J. 381 ([2007]) expanded "reasonable measures" to include protection from student-on-student harassment. This case involved a youth whom classmates taunted with homosexual epithets. The majority opinion stated that "although Frugis involved the need to protect children from adults, its rationale also applied to the present circumstances."

Schools often establish procedures requiring teachers and other employees to report suspected abuse to the principal or school social worker. When a statute requires a teacher to make a prompt report of suspected abuse to state authorities or law enforcement, the teacher is not relieved of this obligation simply because he or she has followed internal reporting procedures. Some state laws do excuse a teacher from state-mandated reporting if someone else either has done so or will report the incident of suspected abuse. In these situations, teachers should always follow up to ensure the report was made to the appropriate agency.

Assessing whether a school or other entity acted reasonably, appropriately, and within the professional standard of care in a given circumstance requires comparing the standard (state law requirements and the school's own policies and procedures) against school officials' behavior. Their actual behavior, or response to an issue of abuse, is established by reviewing the facts as identified through reports and testimony. For example, if a school requires that all staff receive copies of the state statute and the school's own policy governing the prevention, identification, and reporting of suspected abuse, the plaintiff's attorney may argue that the school either failed to have the policies required by law or, at best, had these policies in place but failed to implement them effectively, constituting proximate cause of injury to a child. The defendant's attorney, on the other hand, will argue that the school or entity met the professional standard of care by having appropriate and reasonable policies and procedures but that an intervening element, such as an employee's willful disregard for this standard, was a variable leading to the injury.

Should the School Have Known of Child Abuse?

To what extent must a school or other entity responsible for care of a child have knowledge of a reason to take action before it can be held liable? A Kansas case is illustrative of this point. In Canaday v. Midway Denton U.S.D. No. 433 (218 P.3d 446 Kan. Ct. App. [2009]). a student alleged abuse by a coach whose predisposition to sexual misconduct was known by the school. The school countered that that coach's conduct was unforeseeable. Prior to the allegation, the superintendent received two reports from other students who claimed that the coach inappropriately touched them. A prior investigation did not reveal evidence to support a claim of misconduct at that time, though the court concluded that the investigation provided grounds for the case to survive summary judgment and that a jury should determine whether the school should have foreseen the teacher's conduct.

In another example, a federal court in Pennsylvania determined that school officials must take prompt legal action if they know or suspect that a teacher or other staff member is abusing a child. In Kimberly F. v. Northeastern Educ. Intermediate Unit 19 (2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 35778 [M.D. Pa. 2007]), a parent of a child with autism sued on numerous federal and state grounds, alleging that the teacher hit, grabbed, stepped on, verbally abused, and physically restrained their child. The suit also claimed that two assistants had notified supervisors, but the supervisors purportedly failed to investigate or report the teacher's alleged conduct to child welfare authorities. The parent claimed that the supervisors instead accused the assistants of "breaking a silent code" and transferred them to another district. The court wrote that it was reasonable to infer that the supervisors "were on notice about [the teacher's] alleged abusive acts and knew or should have known that their nonfeasance would allow the abuses to continue." The court disallowed the supervisors from asserting qualified immunity as a defense.

Summary

Some things a school or other entity should consider to protect the safety of children in their care and to safeguard themselves from liability:

  • Train staff to identify indicators of abuse and about their duty to report
  • Develop and rigorously enforce a clear policy on each employee's role in protecting children and responsibility for reporting abuse
  • Employ screening methods and follow state background check laws to keep abusers from having contact with children through the hiring process, and carefully check employment references
  • Educate children in how to recognize abuse and how to respond when they are abused

Together, state law and internal policy constitute the professional standard of care for a given school or other entity entrusted with the care and safety of children. The question of whether the entity acted reasonably and appropriately and within the professional standard of care with regard to the protection of children is addressed through the context of both. There are common elements in state child abuse statutes. The laws require certain professionals with "reasonable cause to believe" or "reason to believe" that a child has been abused or neglected to report suspected abuse. Actual knowledge of abuse is not necessary. Once abuse is suspected, the report must be made immediately to designated child protection agency, department of welfare, or law enforcement unit, depending on the specifics of the law.

School teachers and administrators and staff at daycare centers, camps, and other entities are often the first line of defense against abuse of children. Lawsuits against schools and other entities often focus on inadequate policies, lack of appropriate training, poor investigative procedures, failure to report to the a child protective agency, and deliberate indifference to what officials knew or should have known. When any of these elements can be demonstrated, the institution may have difficulty defending its actions. On the other hand, if the school or other entity takes some important steps to protect children - and abuse nonetheless occurs - the defendant may be able to present a cogent argument that it met the professional standard of care and that failures to report or follow procedures were not a proximate cause of injury.

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Dr. Edward Dragan, provides education expert consultation for high-profile and complicated cases. As an educator and administrator, he has more than 35 years' experience as a teacher, principal, superintendent and director of special education. He also has served as a state department of education official.

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