Nothing disturbs school administrators more than allegations concerning the sexual abuse of a student, whether it is perpetrated by a staff member or another student. Such events are an assault on the entire educational community, upsetting the equilibrium of the institution and its desire to be a safe haven for its students.
What is the duty of care of a school when one student is sexually assaulted by another? Can a school be held liable under the theory of negligent supervision even in the absence of notice of prior similar conduct by the perpetrator?
The Appellate Division, Third Department addressed such thorny issues in Geywits v. Charlotte Valley Central School District and exonerated a pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school located in upstate New York where a high school sophomore allegedly sexually assaulted four first grade students in one of its bathrooms. The sophomore was a good student with no significant history of disciplinary problems or prior instances of inappropriate sexual or physical contact with others. On the other hand, the school permitted the first graders to walk unattended from the cafeteria to their classrooms after breakfast, a practice that was sharply criticized by plaintiff’s liability expert.
The Third Department noted that there was likely a question of fact regarding the level of supervision the school provided the victims. Yet, it held that the school district was not liable “because [the school] had no notice that the illegal actions of a third party, i.e., [the perpetrator], could reasonably have been anticipated, rendering the abuse unforeseeable.”
Difficult cases frequently make bad law. Geywits supports a growing body of law that the duty of care owed by schools when a student is assaulted or injured through the acts of another student is not limitless. In the absence of prior notice, a school is generally not liable for those unanticipated and unforeseeable acts.