Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Protecting Students from Abuse: Public School District Liability for Student Sexual Abuse under State Child Abuse Reporting Laws

Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Protecting Students from Abuse: Public School District Liability for Student Sexual Abuse under State Child Abuse Reporting Laws

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

On March 9, 2005 a "16-year-old developmentally delayed high school student in Columbus, Ohio told a teacher that she had been punched, then forced to perform oral sex on two boys in the school auditorium, while another boy videotaped them."1 After being notified by a teacher of the incident, the girl's father arrived at the school, only to be "strongly discouraged" by the school principal from notifying the police.2 According to court records, the principal instructed the school security guard to arrange a meeting with the city police officer assigned to the school and other staff members. She also urged the girl's father to hold off on action until he returned the next day for that meeting.3 Unsatisfied with this proposed response to the situation, the father called the police himself.4 Subsequently, charges were brought against the principal under an alleged violation of Ohio's child abuse reporting statute. The principal was later terminated from any employment in the school district.5 As of the writing of this article the parents of the student have filed a civil suit against the school district claiming child abuse, an absence of appropriate security, and knowledge on the part of building administrators of ongoing sexual contact among students in the school.6

Child sexual abuse7 is a problem that plagues the United States. Although statistics on the number of child victims vary,8 one recent comprehensive study estimates that as many as 500,000 children are sexually abused each year.9 This same study reports that one in five girls and one in ten to twenty boys will be sexually abused during their childhood.10 Other studies suggest that one in three girls and one in every four to seven boys are sexually abused before turning eighteen years old." The problem of child sexual abuse has not escaped the nation's public school systems.12 Although no one knows exactly how many children have been sexually abused by teachers or other school employees, students from one recent survey indicate that sexual harassment by school staff members is pervasive.13 The survey reports that school personnel have sexually harassed 25% of females and 10% of males in grades 8 to 11.14 In 1983, approximately one percent of adults reported they received sexual advances from school employees when they were children, with onethird of these indicating that sexual contact occurred." According to another study, 17.7% of males and 82.2% of females graduating from high school reported being sexually harassed by school faculty or staff members at some time during their school years.16 Thirteen-and-a-half percent of these students also claimed they engaged in sexual intercourse with their teachers.17 Still another report suggests that up to five percent of public school teachers abuse children.18

All fifty states and the District of Columbia have child abuse laws in place that require certain persons to report suspected child abuse.19 Those held accountable include school teachers, school employees, and school authorities.20 Under these reporting laws, school officials are required to report suspected sexual abuse of a student to state social agencies or law enforcement authorities.21 These state agencies will send trained individuals to conduct systematic investigations to ascertain whether a child has been sexually abused,22 and provide resources to the child and the child's family.23 If, in fact, abuse has occurred, the agency official will report the alleged offender to law enforcement officers or prosecuting attorneys.24

Virtually all courts recognize that a child abuse reporting statute creates a duty to children, the breach of which is the basis of a civil suit for damages.25 Normally, courts recognize a duty only to the minor child about whom school officials have received the abuse reports.26 That is, most courts impose civil liability on a school district when school personnel abuse a student and school officials fail to notify the proper authorities. …

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