IOWA CITY (AP) — A high school can be held liable for the sexual assault of a special education student that occurred off the campus and after the school day ended, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
In a 5-2 decision, the court found that schools may be sued for injuries to students that occur after school hours and off school grounds if negligence by their employees increased the risk of harm. In this case, the court said school officials did not take enough steps to prevent a mentally disabled student from skipping school or to find her after she left.
Dissenting Justice Thomas Waterman said the ruling was among the first in the nation to find that a school can be found negligent for failing to notify the parent of a high school student when they skip their last class period. He called that an unreasonable burden on teachers and administrators.
“The majority's unprecedented expansion of school-district liability for injuries well outside school activities is unwarranted and lacks any workable limiting principle,” he wrote.
In 2007, a 14-year-old Cedar Rapids student skipped her final class and met up with a 19-year-old male student with whom she had a relationship. They eventually went to the home of another special education student.
The girl was sexually assaulted in the garage by the 19-year-old while his friend watched and shot her with BBs. The 19-year-old later pleaded guilty to third-degree sexual abuse.
The girl's mother sued the Cedar Rapids school district on behalf of her daughter, alleging its employees' negligence contributed to her injuries. A jury awarded $500,000 in damages for the girl's pain and suffering. The amount was reduced to $350,000, which the district will likely have to pay plus interest.
Evidence showed that the girl's teacher recorded her absence in a computer attendance system, but school officials did not take any other steps to find the girl — identified in court records as “D.E.” — or notify her mother.
Ann Brown-Graff, a Cedar Rapids attorney representing the girl, praised the court for upholding the jury verdict. She said the school should have notified the girl's parents and campus security, and possibly contacted the police.
An expert testified at the November 2011 trial about other security measures that could have been taken, including having a paraprofessional monitor the girl when she was not in class, and alarms and security guards to prevent unauthorized student departures.
“A school should take certain reasonable actions when a child like this who is mentally disabled goes missing from school,” she said. “The jury's response to this case is noteworthy in that it stands for and upholds the idea that we do, as a society, have an expectation that our children, no matter what their capabilities are, are going to be protected to a reasonable degree at school when we drop them off.”
Writing for the majority, Justice Daryl Hecht said the evidence was sufficient to support the jury's finding that the school “acted unreasonably and that its negligence increased the risk of D.E.'s harm.” The court refused to consider the school district's argument that it had no legal duty to protect the girl against harm that does not occur at school or during school hours, saying that issue was not raised during the trial.
In his dissent, Waterman called that the ruling's only “saving grace,” saying it would allow school districts to argue in future cases that their legal duty is limited “to risks that occur while the student is at school or otherwise engaged in school activities.”
David Baker, a former Supreme Court justice who represented the district on appeal, declined to comment.
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