Hearings took place last week in Olympia regarding a bill being introduced to create immunity for school districts who negligently permit acts of harm and violence to its students. The bill’s introduction stems from a case, N.L. v. Bethel School District, No. 91775-2, in which our State Supreme Court held a school district accountable for a student’s harm which took place off campus.
The facts of the Bethel case are as follows: A 14-year-old female junior high school student was approached by an 18-year-old male high school student at track practice. The track field was shared by both the high school and junior high school teams. The 18-year-old student, however, was a registered sex offender. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department had informed the principal at the girl’s school of the 18-year old student’s sex offender status. The principal, however, took no action whatsoever to advise students, track coaches or any parents of the proclivities or danger the 18-year-old sex offender posed to other students.
The 18-year-old male student persuaded the younger girl to leave campus with him. She did so and was then raped by him. She subsequently sued the school district alleging negligence. The school district denied that it was negligent and argued that even if it was negligent, such negligence was not the cause of her injuries. Our State Supreme Court concluded that the school was negligent and that its negligence did in fact cause the harm she suffered.
The new bill being introduced seeks to shield school districts from liability for any harm that occurs off campus. An extreme example of this would be school teachers and security guards watching a known perpetrator drag a student across the street off campus and then watch the student be assaulted. Since the assault occurred off campus, the school district would be immune from liability per the bill being introduced.
The bill appears to be a mechanism for school districts to shirk their responsibilities and duties to students even though fulfilling their duties and responsibilities would protect students once they leave campus. As the Bethel case shows, had the student, her parents and track coaches known the perpetrator was a sex offender, then the girl and those in her care would have been armed with information and knowledge to protect her from the disastrous offense.
The bill as introduced does not protect children and young students. Instead, it tries to circumvent responsibility by school district personnel who are armed with important information regarding its students. School districts should be accountable when they fail to protect their students. The bill eviscerates a recent and important Washington State Supreme Court case.
Ken Selander is an advocate for children and a children’s injury attorney in Seattle. He pursues claims against school districts, municipalities and government agencies whose negligent conduct harms children and students.