Public schools are trying to reduce their liability for off-campus wrongdoing after the state Supreme Court said the Bethel School District could be held responsible for the rape of a student off school grounds.
The court’s ruling has schools worried they will be exposed to new lawsuits and risk losing liability insurance. School leaders from around the state are backing Senate Bill 5505, which would shield them from liability for damages resulting from student criminal behavior outside of a district’s custody or supervision.
The proposal comes after the state Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in September that a jury should hear a case in which an 18-year-old high school student raped a 14-year-old junior high school student off campus.
The victim said they met at track practice, where the older student mentored younger students. She alleged the district knew he was a registered sex offender and failed to notify staff members or take other precautions to protect students from him.
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Justice Steven Gonzalez, writing for the majority, ruled that a school doesn’t automatically escape liability for harm to a student when that harm occurs when the student is outside school custody.
Tom Seigel, superintendent of the Bethel School District, said he is worried school districts will now be vulnerable to new lawsuits unless “reasonable limitations” are legally established.
“Common sense says that if kids aren’t in our care then we cannot control what they do,” Seigel said.
Sen. Hans Zeiger, chairman of the Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee and sponsor of the school-liability bill, said he fears that escalating legal and insurance costs could affect schools’ ability to educate. The school districts supporting his bill include Bethel, Tacoma, North Thurston and Seattle.
“They already have a lot of liability as is,” said Zeiger, R-Puyallup. “We want to focus on the legal costs that bear direct impact on their kids.”
Heidi Maynard, director of policy and legal services for the Washington State School Directors’ Association, said school district liability has expanded beyond reason.
“A fistfight over the summer could impact schools,” Maynard said. “Either districts would be forced to implement invasive monitoring of their students or adopt a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil approach, and we don’t believe either are good solutions for students.”
But Judith Billings, a former two-term superintendent of public instruction who was called as an expert witness in the Bethel case, said the legislation is based on a misunderstanding of the Supreme Court ruling.
She said the evidence showed that Bethel School District failed to take the right steps while the students were in the district’s custody. A court had ordered the older student to stay away from students two or more years younger than him, on account of his history of sexual aggression towards younger girls. The principal did not develop a plan to keep him away from those students and didn’t inform school employees who needed to know about his status as a sex offender, according to court records.
“This bill would literally give districts free rein to ignore and dismiss legally required protection,” she said.
Larry Shannon, government affairs director for the state’s trial lawyers association, is also opposed. He said the bill presumes that schools should never responsible for what happens off-campus, even if they have a part in creating the situation.
“This is a radical departure from good precautionary measures,” Shannon said.