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  • Billie-Jo Grant, PhD

How can I safeguard my district against a civil lawsuit?

Protecting a district from a civil suit is essential for any school district. Every year, districts spend millions of dollars on legal settlements, jury verdicts, legal fees, and administrator time addressing civil claims of misconduct, bullying, harassment, and discrimination. This article discusses how schools and educational institutions can implement legally sound intake and investigation procedures to reduce or eliminate such expenses.

In civil law, a duty of care is an obligation imposed on those who are responsible for the safety and well-being of others. This responsibility requires individuals to use reasonable judgment when performing any actions that could potentially cause harm to another person. Schools and other educational institutions have an obligation to their students and staff, meaning they can be held liable if there are issues of sexual misconduct, bullying, or harassment that are not appropriately prevented or addressed.



Identifying Negligence

Negligence occurs when someone fails to meet the expected standard of behavior in a given situation, particularly when they have a responsibility to those affected. This can range from unforeseeable accidents causing harm to intentionally harming others, which could result in criminal charges. Negligence by school districts may lead to liability if someone is injured as a result.

Gross negligence is a more serious form of negligence that occurs when a person acts with reckless disregard for the safety or property of another. While there may not be criminal charges in such cases, the injured party could seek financial compensation through a civil lawsuit if they are owed a duty of care.

To determine if an educator or administrator was negligent, four questions must be answered. Firstly, did they have a legal obligation to the injured person? Secondly, did they fail to fulfill this duty? Thirdly, was the person injured as a result? Finally, was the educator's failure to fulfill their duty directly or indirectly responsible for this injury? Answering these questions can help determine liability for negligence.

To successfully prove a legal case of negligence, all four questions must be answered in the affirmative. Lawsuits involving harassment, discrimination, and bullying have typically required physical evidence for validation. However, more courts are recognizing that verbal sexual harassment, such as prolonged use of slurs like "fag," can also be classified as a Title IX violation, even without physical harm.

Understanding Legal Frameworks in Cases of Sexual Harassment, Discrimination, and Bullying

In situations involving sexual harassment, discrimination, or bullying, it's crucial to understand the distinct legal frameworks of school policy, civil lawsuits, and criminal prosecution. Each of these frameworks has its own set of guidelines and regulations that must be taken into account when addressing complaints and concerns. When minors are suspected of being abused in such incidents, reporting to the police or child protective services is mandatory. Schools should also conduct internal investigations into any behavior that may be in violation of district policies, such as sexual harassment, abuse by educators, discrimination, or bullying.

When there are suspicions of adult-to-student sexual misconduct, like inappropriate grooming or boundary crossing, it's essential to report the incident to the police. Law enforcement is better equipped to investigate and collect evidence than school administrators. To ensure that the victim is not subjected to multiple interviews and to prevent evidence from being compromised, all investigations must be coordinated, and school districts may want to have a memorandum of understanding in place with law enforcement. If law enforcement finds no evidence of a crime, the school district still needs to investigate to determine if a policy has been violated and to decide on an appropriate response, such as dismissal or filing a report with the State Teacher Credentialing Commission.

Procedures and Training for Investigating and Addressing Sexual Harassment, Discrimination, and Bullying

Schools have a responsibility to ensure that they have the appropriate personnel and procedures in place to handle complaints related to sexual harassment, discrimination, and bullying. This includes designating a Title IX Coordinator and complaint/case manager at each school site, as well as ensuring that everyone involved in the complaint process receives proper training. It is important for the designated complaint/case manager to be thoroughly trained in intake inquiry and investigation procedures, as they will be responsible for receiving concerns and complaints.

To minimize the risks of harm and liability, schools should create and enforce policies that explicitly prohibit sexual harassment, discrimination, and bullying, and ensure that these policies are consistently followed. Employees and students should be regularly instructed on the policies, and any reported concerns and complaints should be investigated thoroughly and promptly. Schools should also take immediate action to correct any undesirable situations and provide appropriate consequences if allegations are found to be true. It is important to immediately report cases of child abuse, adult-to-student misconduct, sexual assault, or any other type of criminal activity to law enforcement. Schools should make it clear that inappropriate behavior is not tolerated and explain the penalties for such actions, while also encouraging victims to report their experiences and shield witnesses and victims from retaliatory acts.

Schools must adhere to legal requirements for sexual harassment, discrimination, and bullying prevention and comply with detailed guidance provided by the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights and Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. Educational institutions have a responsibility to provide a safe and secure environment for learning and working. To fulfill this duty, four main elements must be considered: providing education, conducting prompt and thorough investigations, taking action to prevent harassment, discrimination, and bullying, and monitoring progress through regular correction of inappropriate behavior.

In conclusion, it is important for schools to prioritize the safety and well-being of their students and employees by implementing proper investigation procedures and training, enforcing policies consistently, and taking prompt and appropriate action in response to any reported concerns or complaints.

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